What can digital agencies learn about business ethics from the Fyre Festival?

At Web Summit 2016, entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule launched the Fyre Festival, an epic music festival with the world’s biggest acts held on a tropical island in the Bahamas. The Fyre Festival was an event to bring Instagram dreams to life, and it was to be promoted by social media agency Jerry Media, harnessing the power of world famous models and instagram influencers such as Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. It was arguably one of the most successful social media campaigns in marketing history, selling out the festival and taking in several million dollars in revenue.

There was just one little problem. Fyre Festival was, from the beginning, sold on promises that could never be delivered. Instead of a luxury festival on a private tropical island, visitors arrived on old school buses to a building site on the island of Great Exuma that can only be described as resembling a poorly organised refugee camp.

Pig swimming in the bahamas
The promo video for Fyre showed models swimming with pigs on tropical beaches

The epic scale of Fyre Festival’s failure and the associated financial fraud has led to two recently released documentaries. A Netflix documentary, The Greatest Party that Never Happened, produced by none other than Jerry Media themselves, and a Hulu documentary called Fyre Fraud. Both tell the story of the event from different perspectives, but there is one glaring difference. The Netflix film produced by Jerry Media awkwardly avoids the question of whether Jerry Media were complicit in the tale of false advertising and fraud that took place.

As the co-founder of an agency that puts ethics at the core of our business, I found this story fascinating. In this article, I’ll share some of the lessons that I think all agencies can learn from Jerry Media’s involvement in the Fyre Festival.

#1. We have real power, and with that comes real responsibility

There’s a strange contradiction in the agency world that we believe our work makes a real impact in the world, but somehow we only acknowledge that impact when it’s positive. I wrote a couple of years ago that we are not spectators, but active participants in our client’s projects. Our work has real impact that spans beyond the pixels we put on the screen. When we help our clients to achieve their goals, we must take responsibility for the part that we’ve played, whether for better or worse.

We cannot outsource our own ethics to our clients; they hire us as experts to add intellectual, creative and technical value, not to behave as robots blindly actioning their commands.

In the case of the Fyre Festival, Jerry Media probably didn’t know that Billy McFarland was engaged in serious financial crime. But according to designer Oren Aks, who was part of the Jerry Media team working on the project, they knew that McFarland’s team was selling the impossible right from the first meeting. He states that it worried them, yet they decided to take on the project nevertheless. As the festival date approached and things began drastically falling apart, Jerry Media doubled down not just in projecting the false image of the festival, but in hiding evidence of the disaster that was unfolding.

Even if they didn’t know the full story and were optimistically hoping that the glass was half full, they knew enough to know that they were being asked to mislead the public. As an agency, they have to take ownership for that.

#2. We should use marketing to inform, not to deceive

I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with the idea that I work in marketing. I prefer to tell people that I work in design or web technology. Marketing as a field has got a bad reputation, being perceived as the discipline of tricking people into buying things that they never knew they wanted. Modern marketing is the art of deception for commercial gain.

But it shouldn’t be this way. Marketing should be the discipline of promotion through informing and inspiring people, not by misleading. Campaigns such as Jerry Media’s social campaign for Fyre might be hugely successful from a commercial perspective, but represent everything that’s wrong with modern marketing.

As marketers, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard, telling real stories, sharing positive and truthful messages, and earning trust through transparency. Marketing can be for good, we just need to take a lead on how we should behave as an industry.

#3. We should choose our clients as carefully as they choose us

The beginning of client-agency relationships tends to be a somewhat one sided affair. A client approaches an agency, asks them to pitch, and the agency then bids for the work. I think it’s fair to say that clients do a lot more due diligence when hiring an agency than agencies do when taking on a client. But that’s not right, surely?

As agencies, we need to know what we’re getting into. We should be asking who are we getting involved with, how our work with them will impact society and what we are staking our own reputation on.

Jerry Media were probably taken in by Billy McFarland’s charisma and ambitious vision, not to mention the potential to earn money. In all honesty, we weren’t there and so we can’t say that we wouldn’t have been taken in if it was us, but we can learn from it. A little bit of due diligence may have revealed that McFarland was already had a somewhat shady reputation from his previous business, Magnesis, and that may have raised some flags.

At Wholegrain, we screen our clients and projects on simple ethical criteria, as well as trusting our guts on whether we feel we should work together. Yes, it does mean turning down potentially lucrative projects from time to time, but our integrity and our long term reputation is always worth far more than any single client or project.

#4. All staff in an agency have a responsibility to stand up for what is right

As an agency owner, I’m conscious that we need to stay true to our mission and values as a business. But I’m also conscious that I can’t be all the all seeing eye.

Positive values need to be shared across all members of an agency team, and we all individually need to question our work, be prepared to say the things that need to be said, and to stand up for what’s right. It’s not always easy, and sometimes we may find that there’s no immediate solution, but the first step to solving a problem is to simply admit that there is one.

In the case of Jerry Media and Fyre, it’s hard to tell whether people such as Oren Aks actually pushed back and spoke their conscience at the time, or whether that only happened after the Fyre had burned to the ground.

It’s for this reason that values are such an important part of our recruitment process for us at Wholegrain. We don’t just hire talented people, but people who care about more than just a paycheck. People who want to create a positive impact, who care about their teammates and their clients, and who are prepared to speak up if things don’t feel right. When everyone cares about the collective impact, projects like Fyre Festival are far less likely to snowball to such epic proportions.

Taking responsibility for our own impact

We work in an industry whose main purpose is to inform and influence people through digital media. We’re catalysts for other people’s ideas and play a key role in bringing them to life. We’re not robots following our client’s commands, but active participants in their projects. As such, we have to take full responsibility for the work that we do, who we do it with, and the impact that it has. We can be the agents of change, and we need to make sure that we create change for the better.