When #MeToo Came to Madison Avenue

The ad industry moves to confront a culture of chronic harassment

Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

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.

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

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