Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture The Future of Work

As party season approaches, adland workers appeal to leaders to tackle sexual harassment

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By Ellen Ormesher | Reporter

October 4, 2022 | 8 min read

Advertising industry’s sexual harassment problem is far from solved.

Christmas party

Incidents of sexual harassment can peak during the festive period/ Image via Pexels

Sexual harassment in the advertising world is no secret. Last year, Zoe Scaman’s blog post ‘Mad Men, Furious Women’ prompted an industry-wide conversation around leadership’s failure to address the abuse that pervades adland.

Meanwhile, bold initiatives such as Nabs’s TimeTo have helped raise awareness of the issue, as well as offer tips and training on how workers can spot, report and support those who have experienced sexual harassment.

At the same time, the Fairer NDAs campaign has been highlighting the use of non-disclosure agreements by leadership to cover up incidents and silence victims from being open about their experiences.

Despite all this, incidents of sexual harassment are still commonplace. Nellie*, a senior communications officer at an independent agency, tells The Drum: “Every time I wear a skirt to a meeting, I remember the pitch where a senior agency head told us there was nothing wrong with wearing a short skirt if it helped you win the business. Now even getting dressed is loaded: ’Should I wear a skirt? Is it too short? Why am I wearing this? What will people think?’ I wonder if he knows how often I’ve thought about that comment since.”

Alice* also works in the industry. She has never forgotten the time, just a few weeks into a new job, she was told that the final interview had ”simply been for the management team to ‘check I was hot enough’”. “It served as an ugly precursor to years of being invited to industry events as the so-called entertainment,” she says.

“’I asked for them to bring you, couldn’t you tell how interested I was at our first meeting?’ were the words uttered to me on one occasion. The very people who were supposed to support and protect me had brought me along with the sole intention of orchestrating abuse.”

Marvin* has worked in the industry for 18 years. He says that, in that time, almost every woman he has worked has been sexually harassed – most multiple times. ”So my plea is simple: if you are in a position of power, protect your fucking staff. If you’re a perpetrator of sexual harassment, just fucking stop it. And if you aren’t sure about either of these, fucking work it out – and quick.”

As we approach the party season, many people across the advertising industry workforce will be looking forward to celebrating the festive period after several difficult years. But incidents of sexual harassment can be even more common during these times – and many are concerned that this longstanding issue within adland could reach a new peak.

LGBTQ+ harassment

Rich Miles, chief executive officer of the Diversity Standard Collective, is one of them. He tells The Drum: “As Christmas approaches, everyone is looking forward to coming together and celebrating after being apart for so long. And at this time of year, people tend to let their guard down slightly and get in the ‘festive’ mood. I think we need to be more vigilant and not let our excitement cloud our judgment.”

He adds that an under-discussed element of the issue of sexual harassment in adland is the way in which LGBTQ+ sexual harassment flies under the radar. “Many of the community are still afraid to speak up because they feel people won’t care or believe it. Although we don’t want to believe there is one rule for one community and another rule for another, this is still the case. It’s also important to note that sexual harassment can happen to all genders.

“Our community can often be highly sexualized for many reasons and in different ways depending on which part of the community you are from. One reason that’s had big a conversation recently is with the rise of Drag culture – although brilliant for many reasons, the popularity can sometimes mean that people outside the community feel free to use sexual innuendos or sexual terms they hear from the Drag community towards us as they consider it ‘our humor’, when actually it can still be wildly inappropriate when out of context.“

He says: “People can easily blur the lines between what they think is a ‘joke’ and what actually constitutes as sexual harassment every day while not even realizing it.”

Miles concludes that while adland has been making more positive steps towards discussing sexual harassment and calling it out, “this shouldn’t stop now“. He says: “We need to continue to support one another and act without prejudice when someone speaks up.”

When it comes to supporting workers who have been subjected to harassment, leaders say that patience and sympathy are key to destigmatizing the issue and creating an open flow of conversation. “You may not understand everything, but creating a safe and comfortable environment is a great starting point,“ says one senior creative.

Men can do more

Meanwhile, many men working in the industry tell us that they would like to see more conversations happening among themselves about the role they can play in supporting people who have been affected by harassment.

Fergus*, who is the head of strategy at a network agency, says: “Being a white man – and thus the dominant norm – it’s worth reminding myself every now and then that I can step on to the work floor every day without too much worry. That I don’t have to think about signals I might be giving, about comments with ambiguous meanings, about how others look at me. Other white men should use that privilege – it creates obligations.”

Frank*, an ex-network agency creative, adds: “Look around your agency – don’t just assume you only have ‘good guys’ there. Chances are there are predators lurking among your peers, now top of the tree, asserting their power and influence and making it even harder for victims to speak up. How do I know? Because there are two who are in top network agencies right now, one even bragging in industry publications about how he ‘nurtures young talent’.”

For those in the industry who are concerned about this issue, or who wish to find out how they can do more, the TimeTo campaign to stamp out sexual harassment in the advertising and media industry offers interactive training designed to educate, help us to take action and raise awareness to ultimately end sexual harassment.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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