Massive but (mostly) harmless conflicts of interest

The conflicts of interest will be enormous when  the recently announced merger between Publicis and Omnicom – each a giant ad agency (or collection of agencies) in its own right – is finalized.  Both companies, through their respective subsidiaries,  represent major players in such industries as automotive,   telecommunications,  food,  beverages, and beer (as described in this article) .   Are conflicts of this sort something that business-ethics-minded individuals should find of concern?

Not in my view – because such conflicts can, at least as a general matter,  be addressed by market forces.  By contrast, truly dangerous conflicts typically involve one of several types of “market failures.”

The first such failure is “information asymmetry,” meaning where market players lack the information needed to make an informed – and hence optimal – decision.  In the COI context, this can occur when a conflict isn’t fully disclosed, which, in some cases, can be seen not only as an ethical breach but a legally actionable instance of fraud or corruption.  To this classic type of information asymmetry one should add the various findings of behavioral ethicists – some discussed in this earlier post – showing that, for a variety of reasons,   even when COIs are disclosed the information doesn’t seem to be processed in an optimal manner. (I’m not sure if this would truly count as an information asymmetry, but it is in that neck of the woods.)

The other most often relevant market failure to COIs concerns externalities, meaning where the cost of a COI is not borne by the individual/entity in a position to address it but by a third party who doesn’t have a seat at the decision making table.  COIs in the health care field – the costs of which are passed on in large measure to taxpayers and insurance companies – are a prominent example of the great harm that externalities can cause.  Moreover, the phenomenon of   “moral hazard” – also addressed in various prior posts – can be seen as causing harm in this way.   Of course, some COIs – like public-sector corruption – involve more than one type of  market failure.

COIs caused by the mergers of ad agencies certainly don’t raise the issue of externalities, at least not as a general matter. For the sake of completeness, I should note that if the merger creates a monopoly that would be yet another form of market failure –  but this seems very unlikely to ever happen, due to (what I assume are) relatively low barriers to entry in the advertising industry.

Finally, while it is possible that the above-mentioned behaviorist findings about the weakness of disclosure does raise the prospect  of information asymmetry (or the behaviorist version thereof) in this setting,  I think that the strong presence of market forces in the form of competitors pointing out to advertisers  the risks of staying with a conflicted agency would largely negate harms of this sort too.  Indeed, astute ad agencies looking to recruit new clients could do worse than trying to utilize some of this behaviorist science for their commercial advantage.

For further reading:

here’s a description of the various forms of market failures;  

here’s a piece about another context  – joint venture governance  – in which COIs should not be seen as inherently troublesome; and

here’s something on how market failures should factor into anti-corruption risk assessment.

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