Apollo Studios faces serious allegations of sexual harassment and racism

Some of the darkest and most toxic elements of the ad industry have spilled onto social media in recent days, leading to the dismissal of the Toronto president of production company collective Mile Inn on Tuesday night.

Montreal-based Attraction, which owns Mile Inn, announced that Yan Dal Santo had been let go after several former female employees of Apollo Studios (one of a handful of production and post production companies that make up Mile Inn) publicly claimed that the company turned a blind eye to sexual harassment and physical assault even though complaints were formally filed and documented. While Dal Santo has not been accused of harassment or assault, the allegations occurred while he was president at Mile Inn.

Those complaints brought forward other claims about a senior executive using extreme racist and sexist language.

Taken together, the revelations—backed by conversations with former employees who declined to speak on the record—paint a picture of a company that allowed senior male employees to get away with fireable offences as long as the company thrived and they kept clients happy, while at the same time other employees felt ignored and compelled to stay silent.

While some of the complaints go back seven years, the catalyst for what unfolded in the last week appears to be an Instagram account called Victims Voices Montreal, posting about long-time Apollo producer Gabriel Gagnon. The account shared anonymous stories about sexual harassment and assault.

On Friday, Gagnon posted on his personal Instagram account: “I know perfectly well that I have committed unspeakable acts and for this, I apologize profusely. All the rumours and stories you have heard are true,” he wrote. “I blame myself for keeping a powerful job that allowed me to create this problem, I was the problem.”

Soon after, Apollo posted a message on its Facebook page (since deleted) that all forms of aggression are unacceptable, that it had terminated its relationship with Gagnon, and that it stood with the victims.

It was this claim, which contrasted so sharply with the experience of current and former employees, that led former Apollo executive producer Kari Hollend to post to Facebook that she was slapped by Gagnon at a company party during Cannes Lions in 2016.

“Myself and a few other young women in the company who were also assaulted by Gab, reported the incidents to the CEO and all of our superiors.” The women were asked if they’d forego legal action if Gagnon got professional help. They agreed and Gagnon was apparently back at the company two weeks later.

Hollend, however, wrote that while she had been promised a promotion she was instead: “[S]at down, screamed at by the CEO who had been there for 4 months, the same one who along with other senior staff told me I was being promoted, while my boss at the time, still currently president, watched. He said things like ‘Welcome to the big leagues.’ He then demoted me.”

Following Hollend’s post this weekend, two other women who worked at Apollo, Lauren Dobbie and Hannah Graham, posted their own similar accounts (here and here) of being harassed or abused by Gagnon and the company choosing to effectively ignore his behaviour.

“I was told that they simply couldn’t fire him because he had too many clients, and the company would suffer,” wrote Graham.

She also wrote that the assault in Cannes was not an isolated event. “During my time there, I saw, heard, and experienced first-hand an array of insane incidents that were absolutely unacceptable, within the workplace or not. Things like one of the co-founders screaming at our most junior employee ‘f*cking c*nt’ in front of the entire company, using foul and offensive language in staff emails, for the time my only female boss had to quit because she was standing up for me and the way we were being spoken to…”

The Message tried to contact Attraction CEO Richard Speer but a company spokesperson responded with comments via email.

In that statement, Attraction said it is “surreal” that its managers “sought to muzzle the victims, to question promotions for women who had been victims and to suggest that it was just a matter of ‘big league’ attitudes. We never, ever allowed it. It is totally contrary to the values that define daily life in our group. It is unacceptable. Our executive team is totally saddened and deeply sorry.”

Attraction said it continued to investigate Gagnon’s behaviour after the 2016 incident and took a number of actions, including barring him from social events, before eventually dismissing him in early 2018. However, he was later hired back as a freelancer.

“That was an error in judgment. This error in judgment is made even greater by the shocking revelations of recent days about the treatment of the three Toronto victims. We are now following up on the administrative consequences of this error in judgment,” said the company’s statement.

However, the posts about Gagnon’s behaviour also prompted another former employee, Tom Hutch (who is in the midst of a legal proceeding with Apollo/Mile Inn), to share a 2013 email from Apollo co-founder Paul Macot that used a racist slur. In the email introducing Hutch to the team, which went to a number of senior Apollo executives, Macot said he had to look up who Hutch was, adding: “I’m so happy you are not a n***er.”

In a comment response to Hutch’s post, Paul Macot said “I am deeply sorry to have written such a disgusting thing. Unfortunately I had the habit of writing the most horrible things in official emails. This was horrible but sarcastique [sic] really bad humour.”

Reached by phone, Macot declined to comment on the email or to answer any questions, saying he had to first talk to his lawyer.

But Attraction also addressed the racist email allegation in comments to The Message by pointing out that it happened before it acquired Apollo in 2015. However, it said that soon after acquiring Apollo Studios and launching Mile Inn in 2016, Attraction began to look into Macot’s “values and behaviour issues” and eventually terminated his employment.

“Even if it refers to something that happened under previous ownership, from someone that didn’t spend long with us, we insist to firmly condemn Paul’s comments and we find them both offensive and inappropriate.”

Attraction said it will continue to investigate what went wrong at Apollo, and that what has been revealed in recent days does not align with the company’s values.

While the details shared in recent days focus on Apollo, some of the producers who spoke with The Message said it is just one extreme example of pervasive problems across the industry. Too many companies are still infused with the sort of toxically masculine culture that enables bad behaviour and forces victims to remain quiet.

But all three of the former Apollo employees who posted about their experience at Apollo made it clear they will no longer be silent.

“I have decided to share my story in the hopes that I can help, encourage and support others in coming forward,” wrote Graham.

“I wish to be heard as a woman who experienced the manipulation and harassment of Gab Gagnon firsthand, and as an employee of Apollo Studios,” said Dobbie.

“I am breaking my silence and will never condone or tolerate this kind of behaviour again,” wrote Hollend.

With files from Chris Powell.

David Brown