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Opinion and Insight

The Advertising Industry Needs a #MeToo Moment

LBB’s Laura Swinton on why the industry needs to make it easier for people to speak out

The Advertising Industry Needs a #MeToo Moment

The Harvey Weinstein fallout has seen millions of women take to social media to share that they too have experienced sexual harassment and assault. It’s been a watershed, and the sheer flood of outpouring demonstrates just how prevalent it is in women’s daily lives. But we already knew that, right? I might be saddened, shocked, outraged about the numbers on the receiving end of it… but what I’m not is surprised.

This isn’t just a movie industry thing, a Hollywood thing. It’s something women have to navigate wherever they are, wherever they work. And that includes the ad industry. We all know that Mad Men behaviour wasn’t locked away in the Mad Men era. My backside can speak from experience – slapped as it was in Cannes several years ago and slyly fondled as it has been by a gross old perverts at an event.

And of course, this isn’t just my experience. Lol, sorry guys, we talk. There’s the production company reps who’ve been slimed and sleazed on, pressured into going along with stuff they really don’t feel comfortable with. The young woman who’s had her hand taken by an old self-proclaimed legend and placed, to her surprise, on his actual penis

Let’s face it, when someone did speak out and name names, they didn’t exactly find that the industry had their back. Erin Johnson filed a suit against J. Walter Thompson, accusing former Global CEO Gustavo Martinez of, among other things, sexual harassment, and in the past 18 months has been through the ringer. As AgencySpy puts it in their latest update on the case: “Whatever its outcome, the story will long serve as a case study in why so many employees hesitate to come forward with complaints about their superiors.”

The current and historic gender imbalances in the industry lend themselves to a system that fosters abuses of power. When the top creative talent – whether at agencies or production companies – is coddled and treated as the sacred cash cow, those in support roles or lower down the ladder become more vulnerable. And, of course, although things are changing in terms of movements like Free the Bid trying to create more opportunity for female directors and more high-profile female senior creatives and creative directors, that power imbalance is still pretty gendered. 

(At this point I’m going to raise a suspicious eyebrow towards the production company repping model too – I’d find it hard to believe that no young women or men have ever been put under implicit and/or explicit pressure to go along with stuff they’re not comfortable doing or accepting bad treatment in the name of ‘building relationships’. Just a thought.)

More broadly, the industry culture at large is one of irreverence, transgression and relationships that cross personal and professional lines; it makes it a fun place to work but it makes it hard to speak out against or draw attention to incidences of abuse. It also makes it all too easy to minimise complaints or sweep them aside – and too easy the villains to hide.

If we agree – and most people seem to – that diversity is important for the industry on a creative, commercial and cultural level, then it has to be a place where people safe. Not too much to ask, right? Pre-empting the #MeToo movement by a good few years, Cindy Gallop spoke out about her own experience being harassed at Cannes... and not a lot happened as a result. A lone voice, however respected, isn't enough to enact change. Ask Cindy. Ask Ashley Judd. Ask Rose McGowan. But hopefully this groundswell will make it possible to talk openly about and tackle the dark side of the industry.