Women in advertising issue a warning to harassers past, present and future

The interconnected issues of misogyny, sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination in advertising have exploded back into the spotlight this week, following a powerful personal essay by Zoe Scaman, founder of U.K.-based strategy studio Bodacious, detailing the abuses she has experienced in her two decades in the industry.

That was followed on Tuesday by a fiery warning to past and future workplace predators and harassers who have ignored and/or escaped the Time’s Up and Me Too movements unscathed (read the entire post below).

Written by and for “all those let down by the industry,” and titled “This is the moment you never want to come,” the call-to-arms warns perpetrators past, present and future that they are about to face a long overdue reckoning for their actions.

“No more will we let you get away with your behaviour,” it states. “No more will we bury the stories and suffer in silence. No more will we let you hide behind your wives and your daughters. No more will we accept your online virtue signalling as a sign you’ve changed.”

It goes on to warn past perpetrators that their names have been shared among women, and pledges that victims will no longer escalate instances to HR, but to the police; will refuse to sign “silencing documents”; and “will shout your names from the rooftops.”

It comes after Scaman wrote a deeply personal essay that appeared on Substack over the weekend. Entitled “Mad Men. Furious Women,” the widely shared essay documented the many instances of sexual abuse/harassment/discrimination Scaman has faced during a career that has included stops at some of the best-known agencies in the industry.

It is peppered throughout with testimonials from other women across the industry, documenting instances of sexual assault; agency cultures hostile towards female employees; drunken clients banging on women’s hotel room doors at 4 a.m. demanding to be let in; and massive discrepancies in wages for people of the same age and experience, with gender the only point of differentiation.

Scaman revealed that she was sexually assaulted by a client at an industry party at the age of 19, just one year after getting her first agency job. The client added to her distress, she said, by telling her to stop being hysterical.

At 24, she was sexually assaulted by her boss after he followed her into a toilet cubicle during a night out. “The next morning, whilst sitting two metres away from me, he sent me an email to suggest we ‘forget about last night’ because he had a wife and kids, as if what had occurred was either consensual or mutual. It was neither,” she wrote.

There was a further incident at age 30, followed by a year of “psychological torment” at 32 by a man whose “self-adulation” led to him bullying and belittling others. It led to therapy for her, while he continues to be celebrated by industry publications and regularly appears on top 10 lists.

“I’m now 36 and, having a built a profile on Twitter, my daily sojourns on the platform bring a healthy dose of reply guys and mansplaining, but also unsolicited advances, dick pics, rape threats, and occasionally, threats on my life too,” she wrote.

In an interview with Fast Company, Scaman said the essay came about after a discussion with a fellow strategist who had moved from London to New York. Within minutes, she said, they were warning each other about who to avoid in various markets, and sharing horror stories.

“At one point we both sat there and said, ‘Hold on a second, what are we doing?’ We were shocked at that behaviour, but it’s become so normalized for women, not just in advertising but most industries,” she said. “I just found myself incensed that this had become normalized to the point where we didn’t question the fact we’re warning other women how to stay safe in their workplace.”

The industry’s reputation for misconduct, harassment and discrimination have been documented by multiple sources in recent years. An Instagram-based whistleblower account called Diet Madison Avenue detailed numerous instances of sexual harassment and discrimination before shutting down in 2018, while the 3% Movement issued a damning report in 2016 called Elephant on Mad Ave.

Based on interviews with nearly 600 women working in advertising, that report contains a series of dispiriting findings—including that more than half of respondents reported being subjected to an unwanted sexual advance and 90% have heard demeaning comments from male colleagues, with 60% reporting hearing them monthly.

Scaman told Fast Company that solutions can arise from the elimination of legally binding non-disclosure agreements, which she said prevent people from speaking out, as well as the creation of  independent organizations dedicated to victims. Human resources departments exist to protect companies rather than people, the article stated, meaning they can’t be fully trusted.

Chris Powell