#metoo… but what can we actually do?

When the #metoo campaign started flooding social media this week, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one out there who felt depressed – and at the same time, wholly unsurprised. For those who haven’t heard (or who have seen the #metoo hashtag and wondered what it means) this viral campaign was triggered by this recent business with Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Miramax studio executive who’s been outed for his revolting behaviour towards countless women in Hollywood.


In the wake of these allegations, celebrities and normal people everywhere took to the internet to share their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault, with the goal of demonstrating how wide-spread this problem really is.


I guess this was shocking to some, But I bet I am not the only one who thought, “well, derr.”


After a decade in the ad industry, your chance of escaping some form of sexual harassment is slim to none. Like showbiz, it’s an industry rife with dodgy goings-on; a world where the lines between professional and personal are constantly blurred. A world where meetings can reasonably be expected to happen in smoky bars; where girls jump out of cakes at agency birthday parties, and where requests for ‘massages’ are all too familiar.


But you know what? I’m not here to talk about all that. Because, thanks to the many articulate people who have already written about it (including well-known campaigner Cindy Gallop), we’ve already established that sexual harassment in advertising and media is a problem. It was a problem in the 1950s, when Don Draper and his ilk drunkenly pawed their receptionists, none of whom were allowed beyond the typing pool. It’s still a problem now.


So, rather than share my own litany of gross #metoo stories (and yep, there are some doozies), I’d just like to ask a simple question.


Now we know harassment’s still a problem, what are we going to DO about it?


On a positive note, our industry has recently started to sit up and make serious efforts to address the problems surrounding gender, diversity and inclusion – the Agency Circle and its survey being one such example. But while it’s important to assess the problem in order to establish a baseline and measure any progress, I can’t help but feel there’s more we could be doing. There may be research happening, some discussions being had and charters being created – but are there any tangible initiatives that are driving change on a practical level?


Are the people who are living with sexual harassment being given any tools, strategies or support to actually make things better?


Before I continue, I do want to pause to acknowledge that sexual harassment is by no means a simple one to solve.

It’s hard enough for companies living by clear-cut corporate protocol, with HR policies everyone can recite by heart. As for those of us living in the rather unconventional world of advertising, media or entertainment? Eek.


In part, this is because of the culture our industry is built on – the very male-dominated boy’s club we’re all familiar with. But you know what I think the other reason is? In our industry, we simply don’t play by the usual corporate rulebook. We wear jeans and thongs to work. We thumb our noses at HR protocol and procedure (things like reviews and inductions are often thin on the ground, to our detriment). We front up for 8am pitches after working ‘til 5am, and don’t even think it’s weird. We google things like erectile dysfunction and boob jobs, all in the name of legitimate research. We have intra-office affairs that everyone turns a blind eye to. We have brainstorms in bars, and bars in our offices for Christ’s sake.


The line between work and play (and appropriate and inappropriate) is so blurred, it’s hard to even see, let alone police. This means sexual harassment often happens in an unusual and ambiguous context – and it’s hard to pinpoint when ‘a bit of fun’ becomes something more sinister.


In advertising, what even IS sexual harassment?


If a client takes a shine to a young account manager and keeps persisting with invitations to drinks, is that harassment? Or is it a harmless bit of flattery that should be endured (after all, you don’t want to lose that client now do you)?


If a creative director hits on someone in their department at an agency party, is that harassment? Or is it an awkward mishap that’s best forgotten before Monday morning?


If a someone asks a co-worker about their sex life (in the name of research), is that harassment? Or is it just one of the many weird things required of people who choose to work in a ‘fun’ industry.


If someone goes to a themed party as a ‘mail order bride’ in a dress made of bubble wrap, and people keep popping her bubbles, is it harassment? Or is it just what people do when they see bubble wrap?


In some cases, it’s fairly obvious when a boundary has been crossed. But usually, it’s unclear, and will depend on the context of the situation and the people involved. An action that can be lame and funny to one person can be deeply repugnant to another.


So, sexual harassment in advertising isn’t clear cut, and neither are the solutions. But that doesn’t mean those solutions aren’t out there.


The Agency Circle is doing some great work in uniting people in our business who care about the gender issue at large, and want things to change. But I for one would love to see it taken a step further, and see some strategies put in place to combat sexual harassment in a visible, tangible, accessible way. Not just in one agency (that may already be happening – I hope so) but in ALL agencies.


I’m no expert but I’ve been doing some research and giving the matter some serious thought. And I’ve come up with a few ideas that I reckon may be worth a shot. Here goes.


Decency should be a pre-requisite for all our leaders.

A lot has been said about having more women in management – and I strongly believe this would help our industry in many ways. But quite apart from that, I’d like to see all managers and leaders hired and promoted for their personal qualities as much as their professional capabilities.


Think back to Year Six when the prefects were elected. Remember that? They were all the good kids. The nice ones you could trust. Not necessarily the most popular, but the ones who could be counted on to do the decent thing. To stand up to bullies, to give everyone a turn at handball, and to refrain from stealing anyone’s lunch money.


Now I know most managers need to do a lot more than make sure we obey the lollipop lady, but would it hurt to expect – and demand – that all our leaders are decent humans who set a healthy example for everyone else? I’m heartened to see that many such people are now heading up our agencies; people with integrity of both genders, who you’d trust to put your daughter safely in a taxi after a late night (as opposed to trying to seduce her into one).


But I’m pretty sure there are still a few out there who make lewd remarks and get a bit close for comfort to the cute receptionist; and everyone lets it slide because they bring a lot of business and hey, it was only meant to be a joke.


You know those ones? Yeah, them. They have to go. They can take their Cannes Lions and regressive attitudes with them. We all know who they are. They’re not funny, and it’s not worth it.


I also think we need to start drawing a clearer line between professional and personal.

This one is tough because as we all know, this is not exactly an ordinary industry. We end up in weird situations that our friends in other business are flabbergasted by. Some of them are very ugly. But let’s be honest – some of them are actually really fun.


Anyone who knows me will confirm that I never complained about the boozy, fun-filled atmosphere of agency land while I worked there (far from it). But now I’ve been calling the shots in my own business for six years, I have started to think very differently. It’s not that I am becoming anti-fun – it’s just that on so many occasions, it’s those hazy work-but-fun occasions where shit goes down that really didn’t need to happen. The work lunch that bleeds into a slightly creepy encounter in a bar. The conference where an innocent grad gets ‘carried away’ by a ‘harmless’ drinking game. You know what I mean.


Alcohol isn’t always a factor but it often plays a part, which muddies the water about what actual went on (is it harassment if the perpetrator doesn’t remember it the next day?). And while it’s unrealistic to remove the social element from our work completely, I do think it would be a whole lot easier if we cleaned things up a little. There is a time and a place for things. And is putting $30K on a bar really the best investment we can make in our workplace culture?


If we want to cut out the sexual harassment from our industry, we may have to cut down on the alcohol content too. No one can deny that Don Draper got a whole lot creepier when there was scotch involved.


The last thing I reckon we could explore is policy.

Yeah I know, boring word. And yeah I know, these much-agonised-over policies often end up tucked away in the bowels of a website doing absolutely sweet fuck all. But hear me out.


According the Australian Human Rights Commission (who are also responsible for the laws against sexual harassment – yep, don’t forget it’s illegal!) a strong policy is one of the fundamental ways any organisation can prevent and address this issue. In fact, they go one further and say it’s every employer’s obligation to have a policy like this, and actively communicate it.


I had a think, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember an agency I’d worked in where I was aware of a sexual harassment policy. I reckon there may have been a policy at some of them, and I know I’ve seen it in employment contracts. But to be honest, things like this have always been filed in my mental ‘meh’ folder, if I’ve registered them at all. Why? Because they weren’t just boring, they had zilch to do with my real-life experience. And what good is a policy if it doesn’t mean anything?


I could understand the mining or finance industry having a boring old policy that doesn’t connect or resonate with people. Connecting and resonating is not their business.


But guess what? It is our business.


What I’d love to see is representatives from our industry get together and have a good old look at this policy thing, and see what we can do. Surely we can come up with a statement and an action plan that helps people prevent problematic situations – and address them quickly and effectively when they do arise. Something that makes people feel OK about speaking up. Something that clarifies what harassment actually is by explaining what’s acceptable, as well as what isn’t.


Hell, we could even go one step further and ask people to take a pledge. This may sound silly, but according to renowned researcher Dr. Robert Cialdini (aka “the godfather of influence”), the act of signing your commitment can directly increase the likelihood that you’ll honour your word. Maybe even our clients could sign it too. That’s be a novel idea – but is it such a difficult ask?


Bottom line is, we have a problem. We know we have a problem. It’s a complex problem. An inherent problem. But powerless, we are not.


We’re not stupid people. We’re strategists, we’re planners, we’re writers, we’re producers. We’re people who specialise in sizing up challenges, crafting powerful messages, and communicating in a way that drives action. We can make people change how they behave, and change how they think.


Isn’t it about time we used all these skills for our own good, not just everyone else’s?


And in the meantime, please… #justdontbecreepy