Adland is dragging its feet on #MeToo, as perpetrators continue to win awards and hide in plain sight

Originally published on Mumbrella

Adland in Australia still hasn’t had its #MeToo moment yet, says Bec Brideson. But what if clients stopped separating the ‘art from the artist’ and drove the change survivors in this industry need?

Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are arguably two of the greatest film directors of the 21st century. Nevertheless, after #MeToo accusations against them, audiences and actors alike became less willing to engage with their art. In the era of personal-brand accountability, I don’t believe in separating art and artist. 

I can’t help but wonder if or when the day will come when clients start applying this principle to agencies and their personnel. After all, how does any agency that harbours or hides predators credibly create work for brands that value respect, safety and the wellbeing of their customers?

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that strict policies and full disclosure around harassment settlements or non-disclosure agreements could become standard requirements for major pitches and contracts. Earlier this year, the National Workplace Sexual Harassment Inquiry forced this issue into the open, displaying which agencies were willing to cooperate.

We are in the age of cancel culture. Exposure is a click away, and justice is swift and merciless. Take the recent departure of McDonald’s’ CEO or even Prince Andrew’s fall from protected grace. These very real stories magnify the need for total transparency and highlight just how much an individual’s accountability matters.

Advertising people see themselves as brand custodians and the voice of the customer, so, of course, we already understand all of this … right?

Many, many employees experience sexual harassment. There are also plenty of women bound by NDAs. Frustratingly, the perpetrators of our industry are still roaming among us, in plain sight. 

Australia’s one-sided legal system protects the ‘Weinsteins’ of our industry. And our plaintiff-friendly defamation laws prevent journalists from fulfilling their role of fourth estate justice. In what survivors know as a ‘def-threat’ (defamation lawsuit), silence has been forced upon those seeking justice. With skeletons securely hidden, the culpable are still on show, winning industry accolades and making brands look great. 

Despite the global awakening, Australia’s not changing; not for now at least. The guilty must surely be feeling both relieved and emboldened by the ‘nothing to see here’ industry response. 

Two years ago, The Agency Circle shared numbers that should have been horrifying enough to launch our own industry inquiry. Yet despite the damning evidence that 42% of women in this industry have experienced sexual harassment, 20% more than a few times – no action was taken.  And judging by the state of its website, there is still a way to go for this industry body to get serious about updating more than just its policies. 

The Agency Circle’s website (Click to enlarge)

In research released 12 months later, The Agency Circle focussed on issues of diversity, but noted: “The Agency Circle reported positive results in relation to sexual harassment as 85% said they had never encountered sexual harassment at their current agency.” 

While many would ask how 15% experiencing harassment at their current agency is a good statistic, I wonder where the help for those experiencing such harassment is and what is being done to bring accountability to predators. 

Instead, the discussion was reframed in favour of those who haven’t experienced harassment, showing just how reluctant the industry powers have been to act.

Similarly the Time’s Up Advertising group was announced in early 2018, yet there is still no move in their movement and emails and calls go unanswered.

The ad industry seems to have hit a wall. If anything is going to change, big businesses, clients, procurement offices and brands have to drive it. 

As for the women who have had their careers derailed, clients (and agencies) are paying the price, losing top talent. Harassing, diminishing, and driving people out of the industry removes their opportunity to contribute. Cindy Gallop made this point powerfully at Kat Gordon’s solutions-driven The 3% Conference in Chicago last month. 

The noise of the #MeToo movement overseas has successfully driven global change in business. But as for the ‘show business of business’ – advertising – it would seem that we have reached an impasse.

The question is, how long can the silence hold?

Bec Brideson is the founder and CEO of Venus Comms and consults to businesses on gender intelligence matters