Agency Leaders Call on Industry to Take Stronger Action on Sexual Harassment

Women recalled their past experiences on stage at the 3% Conference

Sexual harassment was a big topic at this year's conference. - Credit by Bronac McNeill Photography & Film
Headshot of Lindsay Rittenhouse

At this week’s sixth annual 3 Percent Conference, “Beyond Gender,” advertising executives called on leaders to stop simply discussing industry issues—including, most prominently, sexual harassment—and take decisive action on them.

The event left little doubt that this sort of behavior remains a problem. Before a panel called Daughters of the Evolution, filmmaker, author and moderator Lauren Greenfield asked the audience how many had experienced harassment in the industry.

An alarming number of hands shot up.

Two ad veterans then shared their own stories. They did not specify the men involved or the agencies they worked for when the incidents occurred.

Kerstin Emhoff, co-founder and president of production company Prettybird

While hosting a cocktail party for a black-tie awards ceremony several years ago, Emhoff said that a man who worked for a potential client’s marketing department crudely hit on her and then tried kissing her in front of a room full of industry leaders.

“I went to introduce myself and I was surrounded by other men,” she recalled. “I said ‘I’m Kerstin Emhoff, I’m so excited to meet you’ and he looked at me and said ‘Wow, I thought the first time I’d have met you, your legs would be behind your head.'”

Emhoff’s company was in the process of bidding for a production contract, and she thought she could get a good word in by introducing herself. Instead, the man forcefully kissed her before she managed to pull away from him.

“All of a sudden I looked like the biggest idiot in the room,” Emhoff said.

Judy John, CEO Canada and CCO North America, Leo Burnett

Early in her career, a creative director invited John to attend her first Cannes Lions Festival. He assigned her to share a room with a male colleague from another office, in a move he attributed to cost-cutting.

“You don’t want to say no because you don’t know if you’re going to get invited again,” John told the crowd. But when she and the man in question arrived at the “shitty hotel,” she was horrified to find that the room had only one bed—and according to John, the man seemed satisfied with this arrangement.

On the first night, after he had been out drinking, John said the man began hitting on her and continued to do so for the next three days.

“I said ‘This is not going to happen.’ He said, ‘Why are you being so uptight?’” John remembered. “He would say things like ‘What if I’m sleeping and my hand falls onto your breast?’ I said, ‘You’re going to wake up and you’re going to have no arms.’”

When she met up with her creative director after three days of this persistent harassment, John said she told him she would be switching rooms, even if she had to pay for it herself.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, not working out, huh?’” John said.

“When the whole Me Too thing came out, I thought, it’s happened for a long time and we just accept it as it’s part of doing business,” John added. “And you don’t let it destroy you and you just figure out how to keep going. And that’s not right.”

Margaret Johnson, CCO, Goodby Silverstein & Partners

Panelist Margaret Johnson also spoke of avoiding certain unnamed agency leaders with reputations for bad behavior toward women.

“I think like most people I know, you just know who those people are and you navigate around them,” Johnson added. “So, career-wise, it’s really unfortunate because a lot of time the people with the most power have great assignments or things you want to work on but you know that person is a sleaze so you just, you know, work around it.”

So far, agencies have taken only tentative steps in response to demands for greater accountability.

In an internal email acquired by The Drum this week, Havas global CEO Yannick Bolloré told all employees that they must complete two mandatory online courses on harassment and business ethics.

“In recent weeks, we’ve all seen several widely publicized sexual harassment charges involving notable companies and individuals,” Bolloré wrote. “These events prompted a renewed discussion on this extremely important topic. I want to reiterate that we at Havas Group simply do not tolerate harassment—in any form. Havas has a culture that is built on ethical conduct and respect for each other.”

A Havas spokesperson declined to comment on the note.

On Monday, IPG chairman and CEO Michael Roth also sent a memo to his global workforce outlining the holding group’s “zero-tolerance policy for all types of harassment.” He encouraged employees to report any such incidents to managers or use an anonymous company tip line and assured them that whistleblowers would not be penalized for doing so.

So far, the real-world effects of these efforts have yet to be seen. But the #MeToo movement shows little sign of slowing, and it appears to have helped shine a brighter light on harassment in the agency world.

@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.