The business you love: How Me Too and Time's Up reshaped my future

"My work encourages bravery. Bravery on a journey toward building a better advertising industry. It is about harnessing collective wisdom."

It seemed like yesterday. It was not.

I met my client for lunch at Coq d’Or in the Drake Hotel in downtown Chicago. It had a speakeasy feel, quant and warm. It was one of his favorites. Mine too. We’d met for there for lunch many times before.

As an artists’ rep, it was one of my favorite spots to meet clients, which ranged from the big agencies and small design shops mostly in Chicago, to a few direct accounts like Coca-Cola. It had a fabulous Bookbinders Red Snapper soup, which I never failed to order. Ah, the small details one remembers. Just as the coffee arrived, a hotel key appeared on the table between us. Having put up with his grab-assing and sexually explicit monologues for so long, I was not surprised. I was, however, enraged.

As I stood up and walked away, I knew was leaving 40 percent of my income on that table. (Lesson – diversify your client-base). It was 1988 and he was a "famous" designer. I was an artist rep, out on my own. And, so I kept it between myself and the photographers and illustrators whom that hotel key impacted. I had, after all, internalized the unspoken code. You don’t talk.

He was not the first. Nor would he be the last. But, the truth is, I too was guilty. I had normalized the behaviors that had led to that moment. And then I normalized the silence. I was not alone.

The advertising industy had normalized his behavior and the behavior of others like him.

Fast forward thirty years. I was chair of my department, where I taught advertising. I’d earned a Ph.D. and was a full professor. My scholarly work was built around giving a voice to women working in advertising creative departments. I had published 24 articles and book chapters and my top selling textbook on advertising creative was in its fifth edition. I’d given countless presentations around the world and keynoted in three countries, and interviewed over 100 creative women from more than eight countries, many with names you would recognize. I had industy experience.

Returning from a speaking trip to Norway and the Netherlands, I was greeted by an onslaught of messages. An ad agency that my department had a working relationship with had been outed for harboring a harasser. I thought it was time to cut our ties.

Yet, as others saw it, the priority was preserving the relationship with the local ad agency. This, despite the fact they had knowingly kept a harasser in place for nearly two years. (Of course, the agency begs to differ about the timeline of its knowledge of his transgressions.) It didn’t seem to matter that one of his victims was an alumna, who had reported him two years earlier. Nor, that the majority of our students are women, to whom we had a duty. Nor that his firing was about to be public and had the potential to be a PR nightmare for us. It already was for the agency. (We got lucky. The nightmare never touched us.) With all my industry experience and knowledge, this was a no-brainer. It was time to cut the cord with the agency. But, no. I was over-reacting.

I resigned as chair. And, contacted the 180 signatories of Time’s Up/Advertising seeking to learn their motivation for launching the movement.

Let me be clear, my work is not a mad women manifesto. Rather, it is emerging as a series of white papers which explore solutions for creating a better, more equitable, advertising industry by bringing together the voices of women and men - women and men of all shades and orientations. (Yes, I asked every woman I interviewed for the names of men who might talk with me.)

My work encourages bravery. Bravery on a journey toward building a better advertising industry. It is about harnessing collective wisdom. To paraphrase Time’s Up/Advertising it is about facilitating change in "the business you love to make it look more like the industry you want to lead."

Jean Grow, Ph.D., is a professor of strategic communication at Marquette University, and co-director for the Institute for Women’s Leadership.

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