The Responsibility of an Agency to Tell the Truth
How Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos Built an 8 Billion Dollar Lie
Elizabeth Holmes was at one point referred to as the next Steve Jobs. But in the end she would be left with the shattered remains of a once valued 8 billion dollar startup. This fall from grace has been documented in both the press and on a recently released documentary on HBO.
In case you haven’t heard of Holmes, she was the founder and CEO of Theranos, a company that claimed to have revolutionized the world of blood testing using a surprisingly small amount of blood. The only problem was that her claims were just that, and the technology behind Theranos was never proven or delivered. Instead, the company grew and existed on a series of smokescreens, lies, and cover-ups.
Before being exposed and the eventual collapse of Theranos, Holmes received widespread acclaim and accolades which included the following: appointment to the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows; named one of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential People in the World; received the Under 30 Doers Award from Forbes and ranked on its 2015 list of the Most Powerful Women; named Woman of the Year by Glamour; and received an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Pepperdine University. Holmes was also awarded the 2015 Horatio Alger Award, making her the youngest recipient in its history.
Holmes was eventually charged with “massive fraud” by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and remains on trial for attempting to defraud investors, doctors, and patients.
So, the question is this: how did all of this happen with a revolutionary invention that never really existed, and what responsibility does the marketing and branding team behind Homes and Theranos have in the fictional building of their brand?
According to Shiv Singh, in an article published by ADWEEK,
“Marketers didn’t believe it was their responsibility to know how sound the product and the company was. They said they were shielded from the product, as if that was their excuse for not knowing better.”
Singh goes on to discuss the “Fake it till you make it” mentality that Theranos lived by, stating;
“I’d argue that it shouldn’t work in any marketing endeavor, period. It is a Silicon Valley mantra, and Theranos isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last company to take this approach. But it is still misleading, disingenuous and, as other companies have shown, damaging to people and society.”
As marketing professionals, we have a responsibility to not only those that hire us, but also to the public that we develop messaging and branding initiatives for, whether we are helping to build the brand of a local restaurant or the life saving efforts of a multi-billion dollar tech company. In the end, it’s all about trust, or at least it should be.
It would be easy to blame todays “ease of entry” into the marketing profession on such things, but seasoned professionals are just as guilty for not ensuring that the products, services, and companies they promote aren’t what they say they are and don’t do what they promise.
Successful brands cannot exist without trust, and trust can only be earned over time. False promises and inauthentic claims will eventually be discovered, but only after lives have been affected.
The role of an agency is threefold.
- Develop a way for you, your company, and your product and/or service to connect with your audience.
- To deliver messaging that will resonate and promote action.
- To inspire and form an emotional connection that will build trust, loyalty and eventual advocacy.
None of this can happen if your agency doesn’t first look into internal operations, getting to know who you are and what your promise is to the consumer. This starts with forming a relationship that in itself is built on trust, and not just serving in the role of order taker.
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