by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) When asked what they’re doing to prevent workplace harassment, creative agencies tend to point to carefully worded clauses in their policy books. This is clearly inadequate. To tackle harassment head on, broader structural changes with respect to culture, equality and access are needed —and urgently.

MarkLives has collected insights into global best practice on stamping out harassment in the agency workplace. The steps outlined here attempt to guide substantial change beyond contract clauses and paperwork in order to enable the cultural change we need to see happening inside the agency environment.

#1. HR needs overhaul

Deadra Rahaman, president of US-based agency Society Redefined, points out that, first and foremost, this means actually listening to and supporting women. “Too often, women are dismissed and not taken seriously when they bring issues to HR,” she says. “HR needs a complete overhaul. Adland seemed to escape accountability when #MeToo hit, and has been escaping diversity and equality for over 30 years now. Perhaps culture and equality [could be] its own department separate from HR, with a direct report to the CEO.”

Rahaman adds that offences need to be documented in better ways, suggesting the use of technology as part of the process. “I don’t have all the answers on what that looks like but I can see an app or a platform that not only includes sexual harassment violations but also a rating or grading system on other issues like racial or diversity and inclusion issues. This record can travel as talent moves from agency to agency.” It would certainly contain the practice of job-hopping when caught out — leaving one agency for another one/ a client — after harassment claims are lodged but before formal disciplinary action can be taken.

The need for change is immediate, emphasises Rahaman. “Due to the lack of diversity in the industry, when employees experience racism and microaggressions, there’s no place to go for support. We need to start having these uncomfortable conversations. We can no longer accept ‘we’re not there yet’ or ‘these things take time’. Change now is the only answer and action that is acceptable.”

#2. No more safe spaces for “brilliant jerks”

Amy Kean, UK-based director of brand and innovation for change consultancy &us, suggests taking a leaf from Netflix’s HR playbook and no longer tolerating “brilliant jerks”. These are staff members who may be excellent at their job but are also awful, arrogant, unhelpful and rude. “According to Netflix, teamwork is too important to let these guys (or gals) stick around,” says Kean. “Why is this relevant? Because most harassers are senior, stable and well-respected within a company, otherwise they wouldn’t risk harassing someone. They probably believe they are invincible.

“Years ago, high-profile sexual harassers within ad companies in places like the US and UK were sent overseas as punishment, the lives they’d ruined brushed under the carpet with a signed NDA. A sexual harasser is likely to be ‘brilliant’. The victim, more junior, and terrified. The process? Dense, humiliating, secretive, biased and heart-breaking.”

Kean would like to see agencies being “loud and proud” about a lack of tolerance towards this kind of behaviour. “We need to see more companies stating: you could be Einstein levels of genius, you could have made us billions, you could be the president, but we don’t care. You’ve broken the law and abused your position. Instead, there’s loopholes, exceptions, payoffs, twisted arms and blind eyes. Right now, adland values money more than the wellbeing of most of its workforce. Hopefully in the next few years, this will change.”

#3. Break those unspoken expectations

In South Africa, Mandisa Ngubane, Think Creative Africa group account director, urges agencies to tackle the issue of sexual harassment with the same vigour they possess when aiming for industry awards. Echoing Kean, Ngubane says that, if a person is found guilty of sexual harassment or predatory behaviour, they should be removed from the work environment. “They shouldn’t enjoy the protection of the agency just because they win awards or because they are good at their job,” she says.

Ngubane also calls for greater professionalism in the workplace. “From a culture perspective, the agency environment is a lot more relaxed than the traditional office space, and I think that can lead people to ‘forget’ that they are, in fact, in a professional environment,” she says. “I think there’s a problematic, unspoken expectation for women to not be ‘overly sensitive’ by accepting or playing along, so that they don’t get accused of killing the vibe ‘which is essential for creativity to flow’. There are ‘jokes’ that should not be permitted in the workplace; romantic relationships between people who are not at the same level of seniority should not be permitted or treated as just office gossip; and so on.”

Power harassment is another issue that needs to be addressed, says Ngubane. “Most advertising contracts have a clause stating that the nature of our industry demands that we sometimes work late; however, it seems working late and being on-call 24/7 has become an expectation, rather than an anomaly,” she says. “Just because you can WhatsApp an employee at 7pm does not mean you should; just because people [were] in lockdown does not mean it should [have been] standard procedure to work 12-hour days even on weekends. Employee mental wellness should be taken seriously.”

#4. Policy only as good as people implementing it

Angela Madlala, Ogilvy South Africa chief people officer, notes that any policy is only as good as the people implementing it. “It is critical that the right values are represented at a leadership level; we need to ensure our agency’s leaders embody the values of inclusivity and are pro-justice and trustworthy,” she says. “Employees also need to have confidence that concerns will be investigated and addressed quickly and efficiently.”

Adland, as a whole, needs to take a strong stance against harassment of all kinds, adds Madlala. “If a culture is committed to one of inclusivity, then any form of harassment or disrespect needs to be deemed as unacceptable —that includes sexual harassment, bullying or leveraging of power to influence,” she says. “As an industry, adland needs to be unequivocal in denouncing these behaviours and having more candid conversations about these topics.”

Let’s put an end to the boys’ clubs

Christina Knight, Sweden-based creative director of The Amazing Society, believes that tackling harassment requires a culture that is built on openness and trust, where all employees feel safe enough to speak up and speak out. “To obtain that type of culture, management on all levels needs to regularly and publicly address these issues with everyone at the agency present in the room, just as naturally as we talk about other ‘policies’, for example around [data protection], travel or parental leave,” she says. “And they need to be addressed and communicated before there is a possible occurrence of harassment.”

Knight adds that there needs to be absolute clarity on who to turn to, confidentially, if harassment does occur: “A plan of action needs to be set up immediately, to signal to the individual(s) in question as well as to the entire agency, that this constitutes intolerable behaviour and there will be repercussions.”

Furthermore, strong leadership is needed to change work environments and cultures, she says. “Generally, agencies are ‘boys’ clubs’ where certain behaviors and attitudes, traditionally labelled as male, have not only been tolerated but also admired and applauded,” she says, reflecting Ngubane’s sentiment. “This encourages a competitive, exclusive and aggressive culture, commonly difficult to combine with family life and kids, as hours tend to be long and irregular. In other words, agency cultures have not been very accommodating or welcoming to women and mothers, nor to people who do not wish to adhere to behaviours and attitudes characterised as typically ‘male’.

“To change agency cultures, leadership needs to change, to be diverse, inclusive and representative of the people who work at the agency. And the people working at the agency, in turn, need to mirror society itself.”

See also


Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with over decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. She is a contributing writer to

In 2018, MarkLives shone a #SPOTLIGHT on health and wellness in the ad and marketing industries. We continue in 2020 (and beyond), tackling workplace harassment in its various forms.


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