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September 20, 2019

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Sexism in advertising: "They talk about diversity, but they don't want to change"

In 2017, Victoria Brooks, the vice-president of Bloom, a network for women in advertising and communications, had an idea. Aware that there were some subjects its members found difficult to discuss even among supportive peers, she decided to set up what would come to be known as the Booth of Truth at the organisation’s inaugural day-long conference in Clerkenwell, London. Inside this enclosed space, women would be able to write down their experiences of such things as discrimination and sexual harassment, safe in the knowledge that they would be anonymous. These anecdotes would then be used at the end of the day as fodder for a panel discussion and advice session that she and the president of Bloom, Stephanie Matthews, would call Confessions Live.

Women in advertising, left to right: Karen Blackett of WPP, Sarah Jenkins of Grey London, Jo Wallace of JWT London, Jo Arden of MullenLowe, Sereena Abbassi of M&C Saatchi, Ali Hanan of Creative Equals, independent consultant Victoria Brooks and Stephanie Matthews of Virgin. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer


The first booth (there have since been others) was inflatable, and resembled an igloo. It contained a sofa, a selection of coloured pens, and a box into which the confession cards could be posted. But if this sounds light-hearted the result was precisely the opposite. “It was an outpouring,” says Brooks, whose day job is as an independent strategy consultant to the advertising industry. On the table in the office where we’re meeting, she and Matthews, a campaign manager at Virgin, carefully lay out a selection of the cards. What they reveal is shocking. Some of these haikus of misery, inscribed in red, purple and green, are so horrible, I seem only to be able to absorb them by reading them very slowly, out loud.


“I arrived in London for my new job and the CEO said: when are we going to fuck? When I rebuffed him, he said: why did you think I recruited you? For your excellent strategy?”


“My old CEO asked another member of staff if he had ‘been through me’.”


“Feeling sick and pretending to laugh it off when your head of trading tells you that you look ‘OK’ today, and that he ‘definitely would’ in front of the whole team.”


“When your CEO tells you that he only hires ‘pretty, blond girls’ and then regularly invites female employees back to his hotel for champagne.”


“I was once told to ‘slap my dick on the table’. It was my male CEO trying to tell me I needed to be less female when it came to stakeholder management.”


A few moments tick by, and then Brooks says: “It feels like Mad Men, doesn’t it? You think this stuff is done. But it’s not done at all.” Isn’t it possible for women formally to complain about such behaviour? Or is the mere existence of the Booth of Truth the answer to such questions? She nods. “Someone once wrote a card saying that any woman who speaks out will never work again.”


The #MeToo movement, which began its life as a hashtag in October 2017, following allegations of sexual abuse against the Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, has, Brooks believes, had a mixed effect on the world of advertising. People are certainly more aware and increasingly mobilised. The ad industry’s own campaign against sexual harassment in the workplace, #timeTo, a joint initiative between the Advertising Association, NABs (the National Advertising Benevolent Society, a charity that aims to improve the wellbeing of those who work in advertising) and WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications), was launched in March 2018, and has since produced a code of conduct that has been endorsed by 180 companies. In the US, Diet Madison Avenue, an anonymous Instagram account dedicated to exposing sexual harassment in advertising, has allegedly led to several men losing their jobs since it began last year (it has since been closed down).


But this doesn’t mean that most sexual harassment has gone away – or that its victims are finding it any easier to report. The movement has, moreover, had unforeseen consequences for women. Like several others I speak to while researching this piece, Brooks believes there is truth in a recent study by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation, which found that since the advent of #MeToo men have pulled back from, say, one-to-one mentoring relationships with women. (Is this due to genuine anxiety, or is it simply a convenient excuse? The Lean In foundation, and the more generous-minded, insist it’s the former. Either way, the result is a double unfairness for women.)


“The tendency is for people to go into their camps,” says Brooks. “The sisterhood, and the brotherhood. What we need to do now is engage feminist men.” Bloom is actively seeking senior male mentors with whom its members might work. Meanwhile, she and Matthews also plan in the near future to hold an event featuring a Booth of Truth in which men will have the chance to offer up their own experiences.


Even those who know almost nothing about advertising – leaving aside our collective memories of the Smash robot, the Milky Bar Kid and the Honey Monster – have a sense of how it used to be. Some of us were avid for Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, the 60s-set TV series that according to one (male) CEO captures the early days of advertising so perfectly “it might as well have been fact”. Others may remember the widely reported antics at the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi in the late 70s and early 80s (the agency started by Maurice and Charles Saatchi created, among other things, the line “Labour Isn’t Working” for the Conservative party in 1979). As Richard Myers, Simon Goode and Nick Darke note at the beginning of their 2017 book Chutzpah & Chutzpah, Saatchi was once so famous that when invited to participate in a competition in which agencies could promote themselves on a huge screen in Piccadilly Circus, it came up with the line: “Name the first advertising agency that comes into your head.” This was followed a few seconds later with the word: “Exactly.” Advertising was not only flashy, awash with cash and champagne (and possibly other substances); above all, it was charged with testosterone. It was a boys’ club, and this showed in the campaigns it produced for everything from Wonderbra to Yorkie bars.


A lot has changed. Nevertheless, the past three years have not been good for the industry’s reputation when it comes to gender and diversity. In August 2016, Kevin Roberts, the executive chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, stood down after saying in an interview that the debate about gender bias was “over” and implying that women lacked the right kind of ambition for leadership. In October 2017, Justin Tindall, the chief creative officer of M&C Saatchi caused an outcry when he wrote, in a column for a trade magazine, that he was “bored of diversity being prioritised over talent” (Tindall later apologised for his remarks; he is still in his job, and the agency has since installed a head of culture and inclusion, Sereena Abbassi). In March 2018, The&Partnership apologised to its staff and any others who were offended by an email sent by a departing junior employee, Paul Martin, in which he ranked his female colleagues according to attractiveness (one comment read: “If you were the last girl on earth, I would use you as bait to trap a wild animal I would be happier fucking”). In June 2018, Gustavo Martinez, the former CEO of JWT, left WPP two years after the company settled a sexual harassment lawsuit against him (WPP is JWT’s holding company). This came just two months after Martin Sorrell, WPP’s founder, resigned after 33 years following allegations, strenuously denied by him, of personal misconduct and misuse of company assets (the claims made against him involved visits to sex workers and a culture of bullying).


The statistics, moreover, speak for themselves. Now that companies employing more than 250 people are obliged by law to release their gender pay figures, all the world can see that in advertising something is badly amiss. The numbers make sorry reading. In 2018, the worst gender pay gap in the industry was 44.7% at JWT. JWT has a reputation for being very male, but at AMV BBDO, whose CEO was then a woman, Cilla Snowball, it was 37.5%; at adam&eveDDB, an agency also run by a woman, Tammy Einav, the gap was 34.2%. Across the industry, 29% of staff are women, but they tend to rise only so far; they are more rarely in leadership roles, on the board, or partners – and it is this, in part, that skews the figures. More notably, they account for only 12% of creative directors, often among the most highly paid roles in an agency.


"Those white guys are sitting pretty. Enormous salaries, bonuses, stock options, expenses… Why would they rock the boat?”

Cindy Gallop


“When we do presentations, our killer slide is a photograph of all the creative directors: basically, a load of white men,” says Ali Hanan, a former creative at Ogilvy who is now the chief executive of Creative Equals, an organisation that champions diversity in the creative industries. “Then we show a slide of the people they’re making ads for: 85% of purchasing decisions are made by women. It’s shocking. The Advertising Standards Authority wouldn’t have had to introduce guidelines on gender stereotyping if more women had been working on the ads in the first place.”


It is, she says, a vicious circle. “Women are often not invited to the pitch table [when the agency is working on a pitch for a new client]. Their work is 10% less likely to be put forward for awards, and when it is, historically, the men have always been running the juries. Thanks to all this, 12% of creative women are thinking of leaving in the next couple of years.”

Women may be held back by a lack of mentors (only 25% of women have a female line manager) and by long-hours culture (during a pitch, people are often in the office until the small hours). But there is also the question of what happens to new mothers. According to Hanan: “There’s a phrase in our industry: you’re only as good as your last piece of work. That’s particularly unforgiving for those coming back after maternity leave.”


Two women told me about their experiences in this regard. “I was often the only female in the room,” says one former creative. “When I came back from having my son, my work had been handed to a 23-year-old man. I got a lawyer, pursued a discrimination case, and won a pay-off that was big enough for a down payment on a flat. But I also had to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They bought my silence.”


The use of NDAs is widespread. “There is absolute paranoia about image and damage limitation,” says one CEO. But while the signing of an NDA may secure a larger financial payment for women who have been discriminated against, it comes with a heavy price. “I’ve met women who have signed NDAs,” says Nicola Kemp, an editor at the trade magazine Campaign. “They’re a form of gaslighting. The women turn in on themselves, blaming themselves for experiences that are not their fault. That companies address this culture in the future is vital. In my opinion, it’s a form of corporate negligence.”

Finally, there is the issue of sexual harassment, another means by which a woman’s career may be derailed. Opinions vary as to how widespread it is in the industry. A survey of 3,500 advertising employees carried out by the #timeTo initiative found that 34% of women questionedhad been harassed, the majority of them more than once. A quarter of the sample had been harassed six times or more. Among females aged 18 to 24 – in other words, women at the beginning of their careers – 20% had been harassed, most by more senior colleagues. Of those who reported their harassment, half were dissatisfied with the outcome; 83% had not reported it on the grounds that they didn’t trust the reporting system and were afraid of damaging their careers.


“Our industry is a very social one,” says Kerry Glazer, the CEO of AAR, a former president of WACL, and one of those involved in #timeTo. “Our survey told us that harassment was most common where socialising, travel and alcohol were involved.”


Is she optimistic these figures will have improved when, later this year, the companies that have endorsed #timeTo will be surveyed? “Yes, I do feel optimistic,” she says. “The code sets out clearly what to do if you have experienced or witnessed harassment, or if you have overstepped the mark yourself. It is clear that if a company doesn’t act properly having signed up to the code after someone comes forward with a complaint, it will be very much the worse for it.”


But others think these figures are just the tip of the iceberg – even if this is something they will only talk about off the record. NDAs are also being used in sexual harassment cases, and while the victim of such abuse then leaves the company, the perpetrator, if they are sufficiently senior, is often simply shifted into another role (this is what happened to Gustavo Martinez). Such men are sometimes moved abroad, to work in the holding company’s interests in, say, Hong Kong or Singapore.


Again and again, as I researched this piece, the same name came up: a senior executive whose behaviour was, by one account, associated with no fewer than eight NDAs. He was one of those who had been sent elsewhere, thus keeping his status and high salary. What is particularly enraging is that in at least one of these cases, the NDA must have been signed off by, among others, a woman executive.


Cindy Gallop is an industry legend. The founder of the US wing of BBH and the former chair of its board, she left advertising in 2005 to set up her own consultancy; in 2009 she launched MakeLoveNotPorn,a website that hosts “social sex videosharing”. She is known for her TED talks. She believes that sexual harassment is “systemic” in advertising, and that it is the single biggest brake on female success: “It manages women out, destroys ambitions, derails careers, crushes dreams.”


In October, 2017, after the New York Times broke the Weinstein story, Gallop thought that the moment might have come for people in her world to speak out. “I put a post on Facebook, asking people to name names, agencies, holding companies, brands, everything – and I was inundated. I got an absolute avalanche of emails.” At the time, Gallop committed publicly to breaking these stories in the media, but she has since had to admit to failing “spectacularly” on this score: “No one will go on the record. The powerful men run everything, and they [the victims] are scared shitless.”


Has this surprised her? “I am horrified by the names. These are men I considered friends, who I thought were the good guys; who looked me in the eye and told me how highly they thought of women. Now I know what they’re really fucking doing.” Like Nicola Kemp, she thinks women are “crumpled” by NDAs. “We need to reposition what it means to be a whistleblower in our industry. They’re the true heroes. People should be falling over themselves to hire them.”

Gallop, an Oxford University graduate, began her career in advertising in the mid-8