Breaking adland's silence

In the wake of #MeToo, #Top5Gate and advertising's ongoing diversity deficit it is time to break the silence.

Welcome to 2018. A car is currently orbiting the moon. The world’s first robotic hand has been made. We’re moving towards banning plastic straws. Universities in Scotland are giving women free sanitary products. Iceland has made it illegal to pay women less than men. Oh, and in Advertising, people are publically rating each other based on their looks.

The world may be backwards but in many ways, it appears to at least be trying to move forward. Advertising however, has stalled altogether.

From reputable heads of departments losing their jobs with no explanation, to an executive creative director calling diversity "boring", to #Top5Gate, our industry is seemingly regressing, turning itself into some sort of FHM/Arena hybrid circa 1998. 

We may not be able to shut down all types of harassment or inappropriate behaviour but we all hold the power to correct negative discourse, transform harmful situations and stop both from escalating

But who’s to blame for this apparent pervasive and on-going ‘lad culture’? Who’s to blame for good people leaving to become clients? Who’s to blame for the lack of women and POC in senior positions? Who’s to blame for the lying and hypocrisy?

If there’s anything left of the departing planner who sent the email, most people will no doubt point a finger in his direction. He’s become the industry’s favourite scapegoat. And it’s worked. Last week the masses were mad, now they are silent.

But that is the industry’s biggest problem – that silence is deafening.

When we remain silent we unconsciously foster a negative culture that encourages behaviour that's harmful and excuses perpetrators. When we remain silent we signal to each other that nothing is wrong or that we are content with the status quo. But that isn’t the case; something is rotten in the state of Adland and our silence is to blame.

Silence is a direct result of not knowing what is "the right thing to do/say". Silence is a direct result of collective thinking that certain types of behaviour are something that you just put up with or should ignore. Silence is a direct result of discrepancies regarding what is wrong, right and considered ‘normal’. Silence is a direct result of victims being blamed. Silence is a direct result of a lack of positive outcomes. Silence is a direct result of trying to fit in. Silence is a direct result of shame. Silence is a direct result of fear. Silence is a direct result of power struggles. Silence is a direct result of silence.

And the silence needs to end.

With the rise of initiatives like #TimesUpAdvertising and groups like Diet Madison Avenue, The Other Box, Creative Equals and Girlsday, the industry appears to be trying (or being forced) to change but it’s not just up to those in senior management positions to lead the charge. We all need to all help create and foster a culture of shared empowerment where men and women, from intern level to chief executive, feel enabled and invested to bring about change.

We may not be able to shut down all types of harassment or inappropriate behaviour but we all hold the power to correct negative discourse, transform harmful situations and stop both from escalating.

Work is for work – work is not for sex. We are professionals – we are not objects. If you find yourself incapable of quelling your desire to sexualise your co-workers instead of focusing on your job, then you are the problem. 

However, if you can conduct yourself in a professional manner and want to do more to stop negative or damaging behaviour within the industry but do not know how, here are a few suggestions to help you break the silence.

"We won’t tolerate that here"

Individuals are more likely to speak up within companies that are clear and transparent on their refusal to tolerate harassment and their support towards those who report it. Senior management must publically assert and demonstrate their commitment to harassment-free workplaces.

"That wasn’t funny"

If you hear or see something that you don’t think is funny, call it out. If you are in a more junior position and feel uncomfortable saying this to a more senior co-worker, tell HR or your superior who will be able to act accordingly.

Derogatory comments and marginalisation happen because we allow them to happen. And allowing them to happen says to those who witnesses or experience this type of behaviour that is ok. And it’s not.

This isn’t about censorship. We are all capable of making jokes that don’t include boobs or dick pics. Gender harassment, which includes telling or making crude jokes or stories and sharing inappropriate videos, is the most common form of offensive behaviour at work, the acceptance of which leads to far worse.

"I don’t want to talk about that"

Try not to gossip or contribute to speculation. The less you indulge incidents, the faster people will move on to other topics. You can minimise social significance by simply refusing to give it airtime.

Stopping inappropriate behaviour in its tracks also offers comfort to victims who don’t have to deal with thinking everybody is talking about their public humiliation on top of dealing with that what has happened.

"I saw what happened"

Be a proactive witness. Tell someone who is in a position to intervene or to reprimand what has happened.

The more people who speak up, the more seriously incidents are taken and the more accounts of the incident HR and management have to use against individuals whose conduct is against company policy. If they don’t know there is a problem, they cannot do anything about it.

Victims are also more likely to address what’s happened themselves if they know their colleagues are on their side and they aren’t isolated in their feeling that something is wrong.

"I’m sorry"

Stepping up to the plate, acknowledging personal responsibility, saying sorry and being active in teaching others about your experience, can make a difference to victims and to a positive workplace culture. Apologising fosters a positive environment of accountability.

Culture is organic and it can’t be dictated by one person. We must all work together to stop the systemic sexism, prejudice, exclusion, and abuse that currently permeates our industry. As the #TimesUpAdvertising letter boldly states, "We[all] have the power to change this business we love until it looks more like the industry we want to lead."


Nathalie Gordon is a creative at Above & Beyond and a winner of the 2018 IPA Women of Tomorrow Awards



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