When #MeToo Came to Madison Avenue

The ad industry moves to confront a culture of chronic harassment

Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

It could be a line from a Hollywood screenplay: “Come here, so I can rape you in the bathroom.” But it comes from the lawsuit Erin Johnson vs. Gustavo Martinez, J. Walter Thompson and WPP.

Johnson, the now-former global head of communications at JWT, alleged that Martinez, who was then its CEO, repeatedly harassed and undermined her and other staff members. He initially denied the charges but soon resigned—and weeks after Johnson’s claims went public in early 2016, a video emerged in which he could be heard joking about being “raped … and not in the nice way.”

The accusations rocked the agency founded in 1864 and raised broader questions about sexism on Madison Avenue. Yet, while the case made global headlines and dominated cocktail conversations at Cannes, it did not serve as the much-needed catalyst for change in the industry.

“I remember us being disgusted,” says one female agency president. “And then we stopped talking about it.”

The rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have prompted a national reckoning, but advertising has been particularly slow to address the matter of sexual harassment. Though a number of powerful men have lost their jobs in recent months, the industry is just beginning to seriously grapple with a culture where those in positions of power have been allowed to repeatedly abuse their authority with little or no consequence.

A long and checkered past

A closer look at the industry quickly reveals the disturbing realities that women in advertising have faced—and continue to face—over decades.

During one female account executive’s first week at a new job 10 years ago, a male creative director stood next to her in an elevator packed with 20 colleagues. “You have a glow about you,” he said. “Did you get fucked last night?” She informed the head of accounts about the incident, only to be told, “We’re a grab-ass kind of group. We have fun; it’s what we do.”

In another discouragingly familiar story, a woman who filed a harassment suit against a male supervisor now says, “I wanted to bring up charges against him so it would be out in the public, [but] we settled for a small amount of money out of court, and that was it.” He went on to continue scoring top-level jobs at major agencies.

Last fall, an account director at IPG’s Initiative accused a Dr Pepper employee of assaulting her. He was quickly fired, but she later filed a lawsuit naming both client and agency as defendants and claimed that she’d been pulled off the account and effectively forced to resign.

Advertising has never been a particularly friendly business for women, but women of color face an additional set of challenges.

“You have three jobs,” says Omnicom svp, chief diversity officer and Adcolor founder Tiffany R. Warren: “Being a woman; being a woman of color; and being an advocate to change a system that, in some cases, is set up for you not to succeed.” Industry veteran Carol H. Williams, who became the first black woman from a creative agency elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame last year, says the contributions of minorities often go overlooked, noting that the #MeToo movement itself was created in 2006 by Tarana Burke for women of color who had survived sexual violence.

One Hispanic executive says, “A big sociological concern is that we make women and women of color feel like the product of a movement rather than earning their place.”

Change comes quickly to Madison

Eighteen months after Johnson first filed her suit, the industry started to take discrimination and sexual harassment allegations seriously. Beginning last December, a series of big-name firms including CP+B, Droga5, Innocean, The Martin Agency, Wieden + Kennedy and Publicis either fired top executives or placed them on leave after accusations, lawsuits and past settlements came to light.

So why now? One female executive, who like the majority of sources requested anonymity to speak, says, “It had to happen in other industries first to feel like it was OK.” Another points directly at the White House, claiming conversations about gender and power began to shift “the minute we put into office a man who says he grabs women by the vagina.”

One of the factors that makes advertising particularly ripe for discrimination and harassment is its history as a creatively oriented and extremely hierarchical trade, overwhelmingly led by men who have near-absolute power over those below them. As Dailey Advertising managing partner Michelle Wong puts it, “The industry was designed as a boys’ club, and you were invited in on their terms.”

Insiders say high-stakes contracts, combined with the special reverence paid to creative leaders, create an environment that facilitates abuse. One female agency veteran argues that industry leaders have collectively “turned blind eyes” to past offenses by these men for fear that “if we take them off the business, we will lose it.”

“I think [sexism] is baked into almost every industry,” one female executive observes, “but we in advertising sit on the precipice of risk in order to be provocative.” In other words, agency leaders, especially creatives, are encouraged to push and even ignore certain boundaries. Recalling consecutive 15-hour days and nights spent in hotel rooms working on pitches until 3 a.m., she says, “When you give people that much room, there are too many in this world who will take advantage of it.”

Among the eight-plus executives fired over the past five months, all but one were CCOs. Some of their departures came accompanied by specific allegations of misconduct, but most included only ambiguous statements about maintaining safe work spaces.

“It’s time to stop tolerating the bullshit of genius,” says one male chief creative officer at a holding group agency. “For years, if not forever, there was not only forgiveness but support for the idea that creative minds come from a unique, dark, damaging place. They’ve been rewarded and even admired for [bad behavior].”

And that, says this male CCO, has created a toxic model for younger generations coming into the industry. “In the past it hasn’t been three strikes and you’re out,” he says. “It’s been more like, you can strike out three times every inning for nine innings and still keep playing.”

Legal boundaries to progress

Until now, there have been few incentives for women to speak out. Many who put their heads above the parapet have been blackballed, ostracized, or forced to settle as their harassers continued to move up the industry ladder. “Our expectation is that if you speak up, nothing is going to happen,” says Dailey’s Wong. “The same fear runs through every woman: will this be damaging to my career or my reputation?”

Former staffers at The Martin Agency say their complaints to HR about CCO Joe Alexander were repeatedly ignored or dismissed for years before he was ousted last December over multiple sexual harassment allegations. Alexander denied all accusations.

In a similar case, several veterans of another agency owned by a major holding company say their onetime HR director presented leadership with 15-20 individual complaints ranging from sexist and homophobic jokes to repeated instances of harassment by a single executive. The claims, however, were reportedly met with aggressive pushback from the all-male C-suite. Weeks later, the HR director was fired after less than nine months on the job, and the complaints were never officially filed or investigated.

“Most people do not see HR as an advocate,” says a former agency HR director. “When it came up, it was, ‘Just stay away from that guy.’”

In large part, that’s because the system is designed to protect business at the expense of individual employees.

“Until recently, this systemic problem was kept in the shadows by a legal regime that exacerbated the very power imbalances that allow harassment to occur in the first place,” says Ally Coll Steele, lawyer, gender activist and founder of the advocacy group The Purple Campaign.

One such barrier preventing women from coming forward is the nondisclosure agreement. According to multiple sources with decades of shared industry experience, agencies often require departing employees to sign NDAs even if they have not filed complaints or received any form of severance, offering them little recourse for redress.

“Women have little incentive to report harassment even internally, which further perpetuates a culture of silence, fueled by a legitimate fear of retaliation against those who report misconduct,” says Steele, who left her job at top law firm Boies Schiller Flexner last year to co-found the organization after learning that her company had retained private investigators to target women accusing Harvey Weinstein of harassment and assault. Underscoring this point, Steele cites a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission study that says 70 percent of women don’t report incidents of sexual harassment to a manager or supervisor in the first place.

“In this way, systemic discrimination can perpetuate at the workplace and employers and individually named harassers can escape accountability in a public forum such as our courts,” adds Jeanne Christensen, a partner at law firm Wigdor LLP. Christensen and her company have represented a number of plaintiffs in high-profile harassment cases, including the one news anchor Juliet Huddy filed against former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly in December.

Recent attempts at accountability within the ad industry have come from outside the legal system. The most visible whistleblower is Diet Madison Avenue, an anonymous social media entity that describes itself as an advocacy group consisting of more than a dozen agency staffers.

DMA provides an imperfect solution to a deep-set problem. Its practice of publicly airing unproven allegations against prominent men has inspired heated debate, even among the thousands of industry insiders who follow the group. Anti-DMA accounts have popped up, and several women working in production wrote and signed a letter calling for an end to its “unacceptable” campaign.

Yet almost all parties agree that DMA has, in some respects, been an effective mechanism for forcing industry leaders to pay attention despite using questionable tactics.

The time for difficult choices

In March, 180 female industry leaders launched an initiative called Time’s Up Advertising nearly two years to the day after Erin Johnson filed her suit. The group’s agenda includes proposing specific policy changes to reform a culture that has too often led to inequality, discrimination and abuse. At the same time, its organizers are acutely aware that many remain skeptical of its ability to deliver on these bold promises. Its website reads, “We don’t for a minute believe we found all the answers.”

Most industry veterans believe internal 1-800 hotlines and “zero tolerance” statements are Band-Aids at best. True progress requires the active participation of everyone, including leaders who remain overwhelmingly white and male.

What’s next? While there have been encouraging signs of change, one executive predicts more conflict to come as those in power push back against a “rising tide of other that is truly threatening them.”

Erin Johnson proves this point. During the two-plus years between her filing and last week’s news that she and JWT had reached a settlement, she was stripped of most responsibilities while Gustavo Martinez, the man accused of harassing her, taught business courses in Madrid and served as the self-described “country representative” for WPP Spain.

When her case finally ended last week, some said it was about time.

And for many women in advertising, that means time’s up.

Lindsay Rittenhouse contributed reporting.

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.