Usually when a sex scandal touches the corporate world, executives stay silent, resign, or take a secluded break from their duties. Not in Jim Marcus' case. Marcus, group creative director at Tribal DDB in Chicago, became the most talked about man in the ad agency business after he penetrated his naked fiancÃ©e with a power-tool-enhanced sex toy in an extracurricular session of Northwestern University's "Human Sexuality" class.
He has previously organized fetish nights at various nightclubs, including a "hostage party" at which Marcus and his cohosts "came in and beat everybody up, took them hostage and raped and abused everyone." (The activities were entirely consensual, Marcus says.)
The Northwestern incident on Feb. 21 was part of a voluntary, closed-door seminar attended by about 100 students. In a March 4 item, I suggested that Marcus and his fiance, Faith Kroll, were such a distraction for DDB that it might consider firing him. In a series of emails with BNET, Marcus defended his actions and criticized BNET and the rest of the media for mischaracterizing the demonstration. His private life should not reflect on his business life, he insisted. Here is an edited digest of our conversation:
Jim Marcus: The tone of your article seems to suggest that I should be ashamed of what I did, without giving me a chance to even explain WHAT I did. You float the idea that I should not have posed for pictures while running pictures of me pulled from Facebook. You admit that what I did was outside work but insist that people SHOULD somehow think about the sex act when considering me in pitches, meetings, etc., from now on, as though the rest of advertising were composed entirely of virginal people.
The person across the table from you at that last meeting has a sex life. They do things outside work. They may be polyamorous, kinky, involved in BDSM. They may have a thousand different consensual kinks that don't impact the quality of their work one bit.
I spoke out in defense of what we did for the same reason I posed for pictures. If I did not, the only voice people would hear would be yours, the only pictures pulled clumsily from the internet and the only quotes from people NOT in attendance. I have been as responsible as possible in the media, clinical, reasonable, and entirely wishing not to fan the fires of what I consider to be a non-issue.
BNET: We don't actually disagree on the central issue at stake here. I'm fine with your sex life. Go for it. The difference we have is on our perspective of the consequences of public acts. You have taken money from DDB in public, and performed with your fiancÃ©e in public, and believe that one does not reflect on the other. Given that DDB is in the public image business, I think this was naive. I think DDB had a reasonable expectation that by compensating you, you would not do something to cause a distraction to DDB's management or clients. Or rather, that DDB should reserve the right to dismiss employees whose public acts distract from its mission or their clients' mission.
The crucial point here is "public." If you and Faith (pictured) had done your thing in private and were accidentally or maliciously "outed," I don't think there would be any reason for your acts to reflect on your job. The problem is that you and Faith have gone out of your way to make your private lives a public issue, and now you want the public to accept that without reservation. That is not the way public acts work. By making something public, you have to accept the public debate that follows.
Marcus: I think you may be laboring under the impression that we engage in public sex shows in front of the general public as a kink. We were invited in to a human sexuality class to share experiences that were relevant to the area of study. This was not about having fun and exposing the world to what we do. It was about being part of an educational offering to a small group of interested students in an optional environment. Since then, the media has shown up at our house, tried to talk to my family, pulled pictures from the web and maliciously misquoted us, using censorship as their excuse for that ethical violation. Writers such as yourself have called upon my place of work, in essence, to fire me.
It is not possible to educate more privately than was done here. This was a closed, private presentation to students. This is not about my sex life. This is about something that I am going to continue to be passionate about -- that there is nothing wrong with safe, sane and consensual education on the subject of sex and that this education.
I think you may not have adequately thought through the value of an industry, like advertising, that has always encouraged people to pursue their passions outside of work. I am a member of a fairly controversial band as well [Die Warzau] and that has never once made it hard for me to walk into a room and work for a client I believed in.
I think it's unfortunate that, in the meantime you feel happy and comfortable having authored an article that exposes something unnecessary -- a connection to clients that have nothing to do with what I believe in, in this area.
It seems as though you may be confident that it is no great loss if I am let go and no longer able to work in this field. I would suggest to you that as great as that loss would be to me, it would be a greater loss to the ideal of a compassionate industry where creative people explore the world with passion and conviction outside of work as well.
YOU have maliciously outed clients that had no connection to this. You.
BNET: Again, I take your point but disagree with your premise: The demonstration was only "private" in the sense that it was optional for students in the course, but 100 people showed up. One hundred people in a room is not in any way "private." As for your clients, I did not know who they were until I looked them up on your company's web site. That's hardly outing them -- your company published their names in public so the media could view examples of your work.
I also look forward to the day when sex education in the U.S. becomes a bit more realistic and grown up. But could not that goal have been achieved equally effectively if you and Faith had appeared anonymously at Northwestern, and not used your names? The demo would have been the same, the lesson would have been the same, and neither your nor DDB nor your clients would have been bothered by the media storm that followed.
Marcus: We didn't use our names. We didn't reveal the details about where we worked. We didn't give anyone permission to use images from our Facebook pages. We didn't do anything to draw public attention to ourselves. Only after our names were used did we choose to attempt to clear up the inaccuracies. You are the one who made this information available to people.
I'm not ashamed of what I did. I understand that you seem to think I should be. It was a legal, optional educational event for a group of students who were thoughtful, respectful and civil, did not pry into our professional lives, publish our information, show up at our homes or do anything in any way to encourage our employers to fire us. All of that was the job of the media, apparently. The reason this WAS a legal event was that it WAS, in all technical respects and by definitions determined through law PRIVATE. You might notice that the press was not invited. You all managed to invite yourselves after the fact.
We did nothing in a professional capacity. After the fact, my choice was to do nothing and allow my name and face to be used by an unruly news cycle to demonize me or to attempt to set the record straight and clarify the inaccuracies. What I did NOT do was to involve my agency in any way.
BNET: I did not make this information available. I got it from AgencySpy, frankly. How did your names get out there in the first place if you did not use them?
Sure, I got the photos from your own Facebook pages. But then as a digital ad agency exec you know that all photos on Facebook belong to Facebook. It's in their TOS. And if you upload any photo to the web, any member of the public can find them. You seem to be complaining that after publishing your photos publicly (and posing for a newspaper, and giving quotes to the newspaper) that the public can now see your photo.
I don't believe you should "ashamed," as you put it. I simply think this was an error of judgment on your part. I accept your right to do what you do, but you do not seem to accept the right of others to pass opinions about it in a public forum. Surely, someone whose job it is to advise clients about the power and pitfalls of reputation management on the internet can see that.
Marcus: Your guess is as good as mine as to how my name got out. Or how reporters showed up at my house. Or how it is that you thought it was of any value to publish a possible list of brands that might be my clients. All I know is that I did something legal, private and within my rights for educational purposes.
And yes, I understand that Facebook owns those pictures. And that journalists can effectively use anything they like, for any purpose. This is why, once our images and names were found out, we stepped forward to try to clarify and even pose for a picture, hoping that the hunt to scour our Facebook pages would end. After we were no longer anonymous, we chose to stand up for what we did. (You may not realize, but until we took the initiative to clarify, the newspapers had decided that we had been paid and had gotten nearly all the details wrong.)
I may never understand the need to drag possible clients into this. All I can think is that you somehow think that the legal actions of an advertising professional must always reflect the views of the brands he works on. We may have to agree to disagree.
I've walked away from this with a huge amount of new-found respect for my colleagues and an awareness that the media is doing its job both aggressively and poorly.
It has certainly been an interesting experience.