Planting a stake in the ground on ad industry sexual harassment

Kersten Emhoff (right), co-founder and president of Prettybird at 3% Conference / Bronac McNeill

Much has been written already about last week’s 3% Conference: the shift to be more inclusive (MUCH more inclusive), the challenge to bring these discussions into the open and the role that we all play in both our privilege and our blind spots. Kudos to Kat Gordon and her team — it was well worth attending.

I’m not going to rehash what others have already covered. It was very positive (even when it wasn’t). It showed movement (even when it isn’t fast enough). And, it culminated in that walk-away-feeling-like-you-could-conquer-the-world attitude that you wish every industry conference would leave you with.

Hanging over the two days was the specter of the avalanche of Hollywood sexual harassment stories and what the studios were doing in response. Cindy Gallop in her closing keynote said that sexual harassment is the single biggest issue our industry faces today. She’s almost right.

Yes, sexual harassment is a threat to our industry, but it’s a threat because we have systematically refused to deal with it head on. Too many women have held back from saying anything for fear of their future. Too many women have felt that HR was not even a consideration for talking it through. Too many women have seen the Scarlet Letter on those who have come forward to stick their own neck out and bear witness. And, too many agencies and agency leaders have hidden behind lawyers and the threat of lawsuits to take a stand.

When I heard Kersten Emhoff of Pretty Bird tell her story about meeting a well-known creative director for the first time, it made my skin crawl. It made my skin crawl because it wasn’t unfamiliar. The fact that it happened in Cannes was even less surprising. I’ve witnessed things there that no one would ever want their mothers to know. Out of the office, out of control seems to be the presiding attitude. And yet, we chalk it up to “that’s just what happens in Cannes”.

But, it doesn’t just happen in Cannes. The things I’ve heard first hand should disgust anyone: “as long as I have a face, you have a place to sit”, “you know you got the account because I’m looking forward to being close to you (wink wink)” , “maybe a b**ch slapping is in order” or the worst one said when he thought I was out of earshot, “that one needs a good f**king”.

In a New Year’s post this year I indicated that I was done letting someone know when language was unacceptable in private — politely telling them they might want to think about what they just said, but not embarrassing anyone. I realized that by allowing behavior and language to slide in a public forum, I was complicit in allowing that behavior to continue. That day, I was planting a stake in the ground and stating that I wasn’t going to take it anymore. We need to create a counter culture to the one that allows this dangerous behavior to pervade.

The day before the 3% Conference, Michael Roth’s email to IPG employees on sexual harassment was published. In it, Michael outlined not only a zero tolerance, but also a pledge to believe and protect those brave enough to come forward. I am not surprised that Michael Roth would come out with a statement to help create a safe environment for those who feel they have been harassed or violated in some way. Michael has a proven history of pushing IPG and the management of its agencies to create inclusive environments and rewards management teams for reaching concrete goals.

Until every single agency CEO and holding company management team does what IPG did and backs it up with action, we will continue to have the “open secret” culture and “whispered warnings” that many of us have born witness to or experienced for ourselves for too long.

As I said a year ago, “it isn’t an isolated incident.” It never has been.

Wunderman proudly supports The Drum’s 3% Conference coverage. We believe true diversity does not check boxes, it checks itself.

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