Did Cicero really need to apologise for Google ads attacking rivals?

It's rare that I see fit to disagree so publicly with Sir Elton John, but sometimes sorry seems to be the easiest word.

On Wednesday, the agency Cicero Group found itself splashed across the web pages of sharp-tongued blog Guido Fawkes, which reported it had been buying ads on Google against the names’ of rival agencies.

Put 'Brunswick' into Google and the first paid result contained the headline 'Brunswick not cutting it?', with a link to Cicero’s website. Others said ‘Bell Pottinger but better’, and ‘Unhappy with Edelman’.

On Thursday, Cicero apologised, telling PRWeek that the ads being bought was "a mistake by a junior member of staff". Marketing head Andrew Hickley said: "This is not the Cicero approach and we apologise."

The offending use of Google ads was certainly cheeky, but it would be cruel to characterise it as aggressive; trite maybe, but little more. Think about what the ads were actually saying - that Cicero believes it can do a better job than rival agencies. Well, shock horror, of course it thinks that.

True, it isn’t a great look to be slagging off rival firms, but this is pretty small beer – the fact that none of the four wronged rivals wanted to respond when contacted by PRWeek tells you that nobody was particularly offended. Cicero’s senior people might expect a bit of gentle teasing next time they run into the rival agencies in question, but I’d be surprised if it went much further than that.

As a comms firm and a purveyor of creativity, Cicero was itself demonstrating humour and creativity in this campaign – and it seems it has only embarrassed itself by rowing back at the slight sound of complaint. Sometimes, the proverbial envelope needs to be pushed.

I also feel distaste about a firm putting the blame on a junior member of staff. Younger employees deserve supervision and protection, and if they’re given free rein they need to know the people who have given them that freedom are going to stand by that delegation of power. I’m not sure a graduate looking to make their way in PR would be very excited at the prospect of entering such a culture.

A final thing – I don't think this is the case, but there’s a nagging thought in the back of my head saying that quite possibly, this whole affair was a fabrication, designed to cause a bit of a storm and get the Cicero name out there. I think that’s pretty unlikely to have been the case, but if it were a brazen PR stunt then I think an apology would actually have been necessary.

Otherwise; sorry Cicero, but I say you've done yourselves down with your apology.

Sam Burne James is the UK news editor of PRWeek

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