Adland must face up to uncomfortable truths to tackle sexual harassment

How to explain why sexual harassment in advertising is so commonplace, yet the perpetrators remain largely unnamed and unabashed?

If you want to understand why sexual harassment in advertising is so commonplace, and yet the perpetrators remain largely unnamed and unabashed, the following extract from an email sent to Campaign is as good a place as any to start.

"You don’t go to a football match to do a quiet bit of knitting! The naughtiness and silly fiddling about is what made [advertising] fun and flirty – it’s why a lot of girls, women and men wanted to get into ad agencies. The person in your feature clearly chose the wrong business to be in…"

This email was sent in response to an anonymous account by a female creative, published by Campaign last November, about how sexual harassment had "killed every particle of love I had for advertising". 

On reading her soul-shattering story, this new-business director got in touch, not to offer empathy or seek to unmask the perpetrators, but instead to "double-down" on the victim and offer to write (anonymously) what she termed "the other side of the story".

The truth, of course, is that the other side of the story is already here. It’s played out in the pages of Campaign and across adland. It is evident in the uninterrupted trajectory of the careers of the perpetrators of bullying and sexual harassment, in the titillating whispers about "Cindy’s list" and the plethora of NDAs. 

You can see it in the length and obfuscation of agencies’ statements following the myriad departures of senior executives, and in the thought-leadership articles on female-focused talent initiatives, written by bosses who turn a blind eye to endemic sexual harassment in their own networks.

There is no denying that this new era of social-media-driven activism is rooted in a palpable frustration with a PR-dominated corporate culture to "contain and conceal" at all costs. It demands a unified and humane approach from the industry. 

One female creative recently described an event held by her former network as primarily about "giving junior women the sensation that something is happening, without changing anything". This same creative, who routinely had her name left off credits, meetings held on her days off and was berated by her boss for the way she talked to "his boys", summed up the effects of months of bullying thus: "All the things I have described culminated in a feeling of complete and utter powerlessness." 

The uncomfortable truth is that challenging such cultures requires courage and humility in equal measure. It needs a focus that can be achieved only if you don’t disappear down the many competing rabbit holes. Regardless of whether you lament the naming and shaming of alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment on adland’s most feared Instagram account Diet Madison Avenue or dismiss the murky waters of employee review app Fishbowl, employee activism is hitting, and will continue to hit, both adland and businesses at large with a multitude of consequences.

The notion that "everyone is an activist" is more than just an empty soundbite – it offers the promise of true transparency. A world in which business leaders are not seeking to tell the other side of a story that was never theirs to tell in the first place, but instead facing up to the truth, however uncomfortable that may be. 

Nicola Kemp is the trends editor at Campaign.

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