Much like other creative professions, the advertising industry and especially its creative departments have been host to a culture of discrimination and sexual harassment, with recent high-profile incidents leading to the formation of Time's Up/Advertising in 2018. These incidents have revived feminist consciousness-raising in new forms and old, inspiring new commitments to fighting sexism in agencies. This essay discusses the origins of Time's Up/Advertising and its initial actions, as well as the challenges the movement will face in its efforts to rid the advertising industry of misogyny. These problems must be solved if advertising aspires to remain a viable creative industry.
Discrimination in creative industries takes many forms and frequently includes women's lack of opportunity for creative control, many types of harassment, lower salaries, and higher barriers to entry. This is certainly the case for female actors, writers, directors, and technical personnel in the film and television industries, and similar problems are abundant in the advertising industry, affecting both white women and women of color. For decades, feminist activists have battled objectification and other issues regarding ethical representation in advertising, sexual misconduct within agencies, and the lack of opportunity to lead agencies and agencies' creative departments—all of which have pervaded advertising for decades, and were colorfully brought to life in the TV show Mad Men (AMC, 2007–15), which focused on the culture of Madison Avenue ad agencies in the 1960s.1 Several prominent themes and story threads in Mad Men centered on sexual harassment and gender discrimination perpetrated against agency women by white males. And advertising scholar Karen Mallia recently referenced this long-standing culture of sexism in her description of advertising's limited progress since: “Although shiny Macs and open seating may have replaced IBM Selectric typewriters and offices with doors, the advertising creative department remains the playground of privileged young men.”2
Characterized in spring 2017 as still “a boys' club” by the influential trade publication Ad Age, advertising is a creative industry with a stubborn sexism and discrimination problem, as accounts of sexual harassment and misogyny on the heels of #MeToo make clear.3 As Kat Gordon, an industry activist who is seeking to increase the number of female creative directors in advertising agencies, has noted, focused work is needed to “eradicate harassment in an industry that's been mythologized for its misogyny.”4 Another activist, Cindy Gallop, has challenged the industry by remarking several times since 2015 that “the single rarest unicorn in our industry is the black female ECD [executive creative director].”5 The brain drain that agencies face as talented, experienced ad women leave the business in search of less oppressive work environments makes antidiscrimination work vital for the industry's future. Academic research reveals that women consumers feel most advertising campaigns do not resonate with them, even though women are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of all global consumer spending, or about $18 trillion dollars per year.6 A recent Forbes column argued that the only way for businesses to reliably access a share of this female spending power is to “start with gender bias” and create an agency culture where women can thrive.7
Recent developments in Hollywood around #MeToo—the social-media hashtag used to indicate shared experiences of sexual abuse—and the Time's Up movement against sexual harassment and workplace discrimination have heightened attention to these issues. On January 1, 2018, the Time's Up founders, including the actors Eva Longoria, Viola Davis, and Reese Witherspoon, announced the movement and the establishment of a legal defense fund for victims of sexual harassment with a full-page ad in the New York Times.8 The campaign rocketed into public consciousness one week later at the Golden Globes award ceremony on January 8, 2018, with a coordinated “blackout” protest. Hundreds of celebrities wore black dresses and suits in a show of solidarity, and they brought guests associated with women's advocacy, like Billie Jean King, the 1970s feminist icon and tennis champion, and Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Oprah Winfrey wore black and gave a passionate speech that promised a new day dawning where women would never again have to say “me too.”
This surge of activism around gender discrimination caught the attention of female advertising executives who recognized similar problems plaguing their agencies. Fourteen women executives began meeting and discussing how they could reform the advertising industry. They talked about long-standing issues: pay inequity, sexual harassment, and unconscious bias in promoting men over women.9 Also at play are advertising's culture of toxic masculinity, with the industry's leading trade publication describing an “industry-wide reputation of partying, drinking and big egos [that] breeds the type of behavior where male leaders feel they have the license to do whatever they want.”10 The fourteen women decided to launch a parallel movement, Time's Up/Advertising, focused on changing the professional culture of advertising agencies to make them more hospitable places for all women and all people of color.
This essay describes the culture of discrimination in agencies, focusing on high-profile incidents of sexual harassment that led up to the formation of Time's Up/Advertising. These incidents arguably laid the groundwork and raised feminist consciousness and ire sufficiently to inspire the new movement. It lays out some of the challenges that Times's Up/Advertising will face in its efforts to rid the advertising industry of sexism and discrimination and argues that these problems must be solved if advertising can remain a viable industry.
THE ROAD TO TIME'S UP/ADVERTISING
Combating gender discrimination has been on the industry radar for some time, taking form for instance in the 3% Conference, founded in 2012 by creative director Kat Gordon. Gordon sought to champion female leadership, naming the conference for the tiny fraction of female creative directors then working in US advertising agencies.11 The conference, now known as the 3% Movement, offers agencies practical means of developing female creative talent and advancing women's leadership. Gordon called industry attention to overt problems of sexism and racism, as well as to more subtle conditions that undermine women's leadership. These include entertaining clients in male-dominated spaces such as strip clubs, limiting women's time in front of key clients, and not giving women the floor in pitch meetings. In addition, a lack of female mentors and role models reduces the likelihood that women, especially women of color, will make it into leadership roles. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A's), the leading industry group in North America, 70 percent of young female creatives reported that they had never worked with a female creative director or executive creative director.12
Specific revelations about discriminatory conditions in the advertising industry soon followed. In March 2016, Erin Johnson, chief communications officer at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson (JWT), filed a federal lawsuit alleging that CEO Gustavo Martinez had subjected employees “to an unending stream of racist and sexist comments as well as unwanted touching and other unlawful conduct.” She accused Martinez of making offensive comments about Jews and African Americans and making “numerous comments about rape,” including telling her in front of other employees that he wanted to rape her in the bathroom.13 The accusations provided outsiders a window into Madison Avenue culture, highlighting the lack of gender and racial diversity, and an environment where discriminatory and predatory behaviors flourished. Martinez resigned one week after the lawsuit was filed. Ad Age described the JWT lawsuit as “the flash point [that] vaulted sexism in the ad world to the forefront of nearly every conversation.”14
Yet not every advertising executive agreed that sexism and sexual harassment were problems that warranted such attention. In an explosive July 2016 interview, Kevin Roberts, CEO of the influential Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency and head coach at the advertising agency's parent company, Publicis Groupe, remarked that the gender diversity debate in advertising was “over” and that individuals like the former advertising CEO and feminist advertising critic Cindy Gallop were falsifying data about women's experiences. Gallop is the founder and former board chair of the US office of the British agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, where she worked on major brand accounts including Coca-Cola, Ray-Ban, and Polaroid. Regarding Gallop, Roberts said: “I think she's got problems that are of her own making. I think she's making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile, and to take applause, and to get on a soap[box].” Later in the interview, he claimed he spent “no time” thinking about gender issues at Publicis and added that the company had “never had a problem.”15 The reaction from Publicis was swift: Roberts was placed on an immediate leave of absence. Industry observers speculated that Publicis could not afford more bad press around gender discrimination, having just paid nearly $3 million to settle a class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit at its MSLGroup PR agency in New York in May 2016.16 Yet this incident is also an important example of the reception activists and activism have received within the industry, as well as an example of the ways women's stories are disputed and women themselves attacked.
In the days following the Roberts controversy, one of the industry's leading professional associations, the 4A's, released survey data that showed gender discrimination in advertising was far from “over.” Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the association, addressed Roberts head-on, stating what she and many others held true: “The ad industry is not an equal workplace for men and women.” Hill expressed her frustration with Roberts's point of view and characterized it as divorced from lived industry experiences: “We hear a comment so out of touch with reality that it confirms what many of us fear: there are industry leaders out there who brush off gender and diversity issues; too many C-suite execs believe this issue is an isolated problem, one that doesn't exist in ‘my house’ or, remarkably, one that doesn't exist at all.”17 The organization surveyed 549 of its members, with 375 responding to the survey. More than half had experienced sexual harassment. The survey also reinforced the industry's long-standing issue with diversity and gender equality: 70 percent of respondents who identified as white women, women of color, or men of color said that they do not get the same opportunities as white males at agencies. Fifty-four percent of all women said they felt vulnerable in the workplace; 33 percent reported being overlooked for promotions because of their gender; and 42 percent said gender discrimination kept them from decision-making roles in the industry.18
Such problems are not limited to giant ad agencies; smaller firms have also been revealed as potentially hostile work environments for women. Nine women working for the digital advertising agency Carrot Creative, purchased by Vice Media in 2013, described their workplace as “littered with sexism and misogyny,” including sexual misconduct, unwanted physical contact, and inappropriately sexual language. Carrot cofounder and Vice digital chief Mike Germano reportedly told female employees to look pretty for client meetings and pulled women onto his lap and subjected them to unwanted comments and touching. The employees maintained that the gendered nature of the Carrot Creative workplace and their objectification made it difficult for women to ascend to top leadership roles.19 These behaviors came to light shortly after the New York Times published a major investigative story in December 2017 about the larger culture at Vice, which it described as neither safe nor inclusive, and as “degrading and uncomfortable for women.” The story reported four settlements involving sexual misconduct by Vice employees, and interviewed more than two dozen other women who had experienced unwanted advances. The story described “a top-down ethos of male entitlement at Vice, where women said they felt like just another party favor at an organization where partying often was an extension of the job.”20 Carrot Creative's Germano was forced out less than six weeks after the story was published.
The Vice report appeared amid the stunning testimonies of dozens of women who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein and the spread of the hashtag campaign #MeToo. In October 2017, Cindy Gallop (who had been the subject of Kevin Roberts's falsification comments) responded to these events by partnering with Ad Age to ask women in the advertising industry to share their accounts of harassment. Gallop is a vocal critic of the industry's gender politics and has been a keynote speaker at every annual 3% Conference.21 In 2015–16 she hosted four webinars for the 4A's called “The Glass Ladder,” focusing on giving women actionable advice on how to ask for raises, position themselves for promotions, and be seen as leaders within their agencies and creative departments.22,Ad Age set up a blind email address and encouraged women to share personal stories about gender discrimination or other forms of bias they were experiencing in the industry.23 Gallop posted a message on Facebook calling for participation “to end the Harvey Weinsteins of our industry once and for all.” Within ten days, they received more than one hundred emails from women working at all levels in ad agencies around the world.24 In a 2018 interview, Gallop named sexual harassment, bias, and sexism as “a systemic cultural problem” in the advertising industry that was preventing gender equality and diversity in leadership.25
These public revelations have opened a window for viewing the hazardous working conditions that many women in advertising must navigate. In addition to inappropriate behavior from agency colleagues and a blind eye from management, a 2018 lawsuit revealed that they could fall victim to client misconduct as well. In early 2018, Nancy Mucciarone, a former associate director at the media-buying agency Initiative, owned by Interpublic Group, filed a lawsuit claiming that a media manager at Dr Pepper, an agency client, had sexually assaulted her. When Mucciarone reported the incident to her supervisors, they responded by trying to move her to a different client account to protect the business. After she indicated her intent to file legal charges, Mucciarone contended that her workplace became a hostile environment. The Wall Street Journal reporter covering the case opined that what happened to Mucciarone illustrated a core problem in advertising: fawning attention to clients, often at the expense of employees: “The suit focuses attention on how sexual-harassment issues on Madison Avenue can extend beyond what happens inside ad firms. Staffers can be vulnerable in their dealings with clients, a power dynamic familiar in other industries where handling and entertaining business partners is a core part of the job.”26
In addition to recent revelations and awareness, the advertising industry has long been critiqued as contributing to an environment that perpetuates toxic masculinity, female insecurity and low self-esteem, and the marginalization of people of color. For more than fifty years, media scholars have assessed this landscape through content and semiotic analyses, as well as through problematic-effects research, which has pointed to the potential hazards of consuming objectifying, racist, sexist, and violent ad images.27 It is no wonder, then, that advertising images may be an extension of the abusive creative environments present in many agencies. Calling advertising “one of society's most disturbing cultural products,” scholar Liesbet van Zoonen has asserted that the industry is unique in producing a cultural form preoccupied with gender “hardly matched in any other genre.”28 In reaction to these types of images, and rooted in decades of research into objectification, the #WomenNotObjects campaign has recently tackled the misogyny and sexism depicted within ads themselves.29 Industry leader Madonna Badger and her agency, Badger and Winters, kick-started the conversation about objectification within the industry starting in early 2016, garnering millions of impressions for #WomenNotObjects on YouTube, Twitter, and other social media platforms. The campaign led Badger to influence the prestigious Cannes Lions awards, which will no longer bestow accolades on advertising that objectifies people.
THE LAUNCH OF TIME'S UP/ADVERTISING
Time's Up/Advertising made its first public announcement in March 2018. By this time, the leadership had grown from the initial steering committee of fourteen to include more than 180 female C-suite advertising agency executives, representing such major agencies as BBDO, Wieden+Kennedy, and Publicis. These leaders agreed on goals for the movement, including dismantling industry power structures to reduce harassment and systemic inequality, and increasing diversity among agency staff and leadership.30 They identified three areas of focus: examining the processes and policies within agencies that have failed women; identifying and mentoring people who offer diversity across the board and are poised to become agency leaders; and adopting progressive agency training and education.31 In a March 15 statement titled “Hey Sisters, We Know,” published online, these women declared that they would no longer remain quiet about deplorable conditions:
Time's up, advertising.
Time's up on sexual harassment.
Time's up on lack of representation.
Time's up on inequity.
Time's up on silence.32
The statement pointed specifically to “old power dynamics” that disadvantage women working in advertising. The authors noted that these structures sustain and re-create non-diverse agency leadership that “encouraged some of us to rise but held others back.” They reserved their harshest critique for the pervasive culture of sexual abuse prevalent in agencies: “Sexual harassment is not OK. Never. No exceptions. No amount of talent, missed cues, or being great in the room unchecks the No Sexual Harassment box.” They assigned themselves, as women in senior leadership positions in advertising, a challenging task: “to change this business we love until it looks more like the industry we want to lead.”33
The initial public meetings for Time's Up/Advertising occurred on May 14, 2018, in the United States and Canada, happening simultaneously in fourteen cities: Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Portland, Richmond (Virginia), San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver. Billed as a listening tour with meetings open only to women working in advertising agencies, most meetings sold out of (free) event tickets within twenty-four hours. Numerous meetings were relocated from advertising agencies to larger venues, such as the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, which was capable of accommodating more than two thousand participants. With meetings open only to agency women, many others were excluded—contract employees, freelancers, academics, students, and others who had been pushed out of agencies due to discrimination.34 Indeed, many women were contacted and their tickets rescinded once event organizers determined that they were not primarily working in agencies. Time's Up/Advertising subsequently apologized for these exclusions. No men or journalists were allowed to register or attend; policies about transgender women were not publicized. The Martin Agency, host of the meeting in Richmond, explained this agency-women-only policy as a “necessary first step in the process [of] talking face-to-face with the women of our industry.”35 Time's Up/Advertising released a statement that it had restricted the meetings because they wanted to create a “safe space” where women could share stories of what was happening inside the agencies, without fear of reprisal. The organization acknowledged that this was an “imperfect solution,” and in the days prior to the event announced that freelancers and women between jobs in advertising would not be turned away at the door.36
The first part of the session featured steering committee members in a discussion streamed live on Facebook from the New York meeting. Wendy Clark, DDB global CEO, and Colleen DeCourcy, global chief creative officer (CCO) at Wieden+Kennedy, led the first part of the session. DeCourcy spoke about the toll of recent revelations: “It's a terrible feeling to wake up every morning and see something in the press, as a woman in a leadership position in advertising. … I felt like, two things: one, wow, advertising is really in a fucking mess. And two, what can I do? Can I do something about that?” On stage with Clark and DeCourcy were other steering committee members, including Daisy Expósito-Ulla, chair and CEO of d expósito & Partners; Tiffany R. Warren, senior vice president and chief diversity officer for Omnicom Group and president of Adcolor; Jiah Choi, partner and CEO of Anomaly L.A.; Emily Sander, chair of advertising and branding at Savannah College of Art and Design; Stacey Ryan-Cornelius, WPP Health & Wellness chief financial officer (CFO); Lauren Crampsie, Ogilvy senior partner and global chief marketing officer (CMO); and Laura Maness, Havas New York CEO.37
The major themes of the live-streamed portion centered on diversity, opportunity, inclusion, and harassment, and women stepping forward to use their voices and claim their power to create meaningful change. “We really have the power to change this industry we love until it becomes the one we want to lead and be proud of,” Wendy Clark told the audience. Tiffany R. Warren testified that “women of color have been told to wait their turn, to sit down, to be humble.” In an interview later in the session with Warren, Nina Shaw, a prominent Hollywood entertainment attorney and a founding member of the original Time's Up movement, discussed intersectionality and the importance of making sure that all voices are represented in the agencies, and in the movement at large. “It is so important that we keep this a movement for all of us,” Shaw said. “If you're sitting in a room that is not diverse and inclusive, figure out a way to make it diverse and inclusive.”38
The second part of each meeting was closed-door, for those in attendance only, devoted to a speak-out by women working in the industry responding to a panel discussion about current conditions. Time's Up/Advertising organizers have announced that the next steps will include working groups around strategy and research, partnerships, employee-focused policy and programs, education and culture, pipeline and talent, fundraising and events. These working groups are now open on the organization's website for people to register.
CHALLENGES FOR TIME'S UP/ADVERTISING
One of the first challenges will be to get the defenders of the advertising industry status quo to lay down their arguments and listen. These men (and women) must be present at the table to listen and then to contribute to this ongoing discussion, once the latest movement has found its footing. Women within the industry, through the 3% Conference and other similar efforts, have been talking about and defining the problems for several decades. The industry's major publications have covered the issue thoroughly in recent years. Yet the harassment and sexism have continued as an integral part of the industry's traditions. Men and all others in agency leadership must commit to solutions, must follow through with proven remedies, and must provide thought leadership to change the culture and to provide examples of unbiased, nontoxic relationship building for newer and younger employees. “Bro culture” is tackled directly by the 3% Conference in its training and resources, supported by research; this, too, must be scrutinized and addressed by agencies hoping to reform.39 Beyond breaking down the features of bro culture, other concrete “micro-actions” are outlined by the 3% Conference, and the organization provides “3% in a Box,” a learning kit with curriculum for making the conference and its takeaways portable.40
In addition to including men in the discussions in the near future, the Time's Up/Advertising movement must proceed with the largest audience of participants in mind, including contract workers, freelancers, academics, and other advertising professionals who support or connect with agencies and their work. The casting couch exists within the agency world via commercial shoots, and so actors and extras also need to be considered and protected. Another group not yet receiving focus from this movement is interns. Young women and men in internships are some of the most vulnerable to harassment, sexism, and other biased treatment because they have no official or permanent standing, whether in large or small agencies, and may be inexperienced in discerning good industry norms from bad.41 Another area of the industry where women and people of color may need protection is within the growing big-data sector. While this specialty area may operate quite separately from creative or account management cultures, it is a place where two industries—advertising and technology—collide. Both have poor records of providing positive working cultures for women and people of color.
The Time's Up/Advertising organizers have a bold vision for the future of the industry. They seek to create agency environments where every employee feels safe, motivated, and valued for her or his work; where people can be creative; where people feel a sense of belonging as opposed to feeling excluded or tokenized; and where they know they can voice concerns and receive an appropriate and timely response from leadership.42 Yet these conditions will be difficult to create given advertising's roots as a discriminatory industry known for its sexism and racism, not just inside its own world of agencies, but also through the external representational world it has created in advertisements. Time's Up/Advertising, the 3% Conference, and their partners will need all of their collective mindshare and energy, plus the knowledge of disciplines such as change management, to correct the inequities, harassment, and toxic traditions of advertising's present and past.