Since launched as an anonymously-run Instagram account in fall of 2017, Diet Madison Avenue (DMA) has been linked to many exits of top executives throughout the ad industry.
With its trademark snark, multi-layered Instagram stories, and promise to protect those willing to blow the whistle, DMA has amassed thousands of followers and given peace of mind to some in the industry crying out for a voice since launch. However, a recent lawsuit filed against the group by former CP+B chief creative Ralph Watson, who exited the agency following a claim made by the group, it's worth a look into how the group got here, where it goes next, and if there's even a future for what's become advertising’s cyber-vigilantes.
From accuser to accused: Ralph Watson's impact
In early February, it was reported that Ralph Watson had exited Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder. It was an unceremonious exit, one that echoed the exits of other creative executives from various agencies since Joe Alexander. Each name, including Watson’s, came with a short comment from his former employer: not explicitly giving reason for dismissal, but acknowledging the absence.
By June, Watson made headlines again, as he filed a lawsuit against his former company, holding group MDC Partners, and Diet Madison Avenue for defamation of character, among other charges. Damages, he claimed, were equal to $10m. Watson also posted an open letter to DMA through his legal counsel’s webpage.
The focus of the suit was a since-deleted Instagram post with the caption: “Ralph Watson. The women that you targeted & groomed (like all predators do), because they were young & just starting out their careers...the women that you assumed would stay quiet are stronger than you ever gave them credit for. And their voices have created a timeline. Going back years. Corroborated stories. Spanning across multiple agencies. And even continents."
It was the first suit filed against the group of 17 that had launched the page, which had accumulated upwards of 12,000 followers through its Instagram page. Diet Madison Avenue has since declined to comment on the status of the case.
Anonymity, credibility and the fight for legitimacy
One of the criticisms of DMA since its launch was the legitimacy of the claims of 17 advertising professionals who placed pig noses on men they accused of impropriety, with one now under legal scrutiny.
By March, when it had reached 18,000 followers, a letter was penned against the group by a set of women who took opposition to its method of operating. Those women, led by producer Karen McKibben, had requested the group's page on Instagram be shut down, with a letter that accused them of making false accusations and creating a culture of fear.
“For the past several months, Diet Madison Avenue has been the 10-ton elephant filling nearly every office in the ad industry. The group describes itself as “17 ad junkies exposing Madison Ave sexual harassment & discrimination since Oct 2017, cuz HR won’t.” It became a topic of conversation around the world as industry insiders debated the importance of addressing advertising’s entrenched sexism and the anonymous account’s method of calling out alleged offenders.
However, DMA’s mere presence has had an effect on how Madison Avenue and its inhabitants go about their business. Within months, Times Up, the organization started in Hollywood to tackle similar issues for those assaulted by men in high stature,had created its first trade chapter specifically for the advertising industry.
Over 180 top female executives from agencies, holding companies, and trade organizations had signed a pledge and hosted events across the country to address how the industry could become a safer place for women and a more inclusive environment for all to work in. However, since the initial fanfare and meetings, Times Up Advertising has been radio silent on social media.
— TIME’S UP™️ /ADVERTISING (@TIMESUPAD) March 12, 2018
At Cannes, another anonymous group of women took to Instagram to address the lack of female representation. Dubbed "@womencannes", the page requested attendees wear black and don lioness tattoos to show their support for those harassed in the workplace. Meanwhile, another anonymous Instagram account that goes by The Think Pol has been the primary opposition of the group since the year began.
With no end in sight, what's next for DMA?
The media industry has had the benefit of a Ronan Farrow to report on the likes of Harvey Weinstein, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and others who have found themselves on the receiving end of women brave enough to step forward and address their abuses of power and privilege.
However, even with departures of Dan Fietsam (formerly of Laughlin Constable, dismissed after a public accusation in a Milwaukee ad club), and Ogilvy’s global creative chief Thai Khai Meng due to “behavior,” a cloud of mystery still cloaks the insular ad industry and why such senior figures are losing their jobs suddenly.
The Watson lawsuit was filed in May, without any word from either party in the case there is no sign of an outcome, and what it will mean for DMA — or for the status of anonymous forums and safe spaces in the #MeToo and #TimesUp eras.
DMA has reportedly been linked to Times Up Advertising through representation from its legal defense fund; the Times Up Advertising’s legal defense fund.
The Drum has reached out for comment from the group for an update, but had yet to hear back at the time of writing.