Confessions of an ad exec: Ad agency culture problems start at the top

As sexual harassment issues sweep the ad industry, some heads are rolling. But in many cases, it feels like agencies aren’t getting ahead of the problem. In this edition of Confessions, in which we grant anonymity for honesty, a female agency veteran who has worked in both human resources and public relations at major agencies discusses why HR is often the problem. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

How do you view #MeToo and its arrival to the ad industry?
It comes down to size. The bigger you get, the harder it is to maintain a culture. And the culture agencies have maintained is one of trying to be cool. The ad industry is the one industry where everyone acts like little kids. Everyone wants to be cool. The white middle-aged guy in the suburbs who talks like a hip-hop artist is the CEO.

That’s awkward.
Of course. It reeks of so much white privilege. I feel like with the heads of so many agencies, it’s probably one of the most liberal, democratic places. For the most part, they’re really social justice types. But they speak with white privilege. Just look at how everyone got their jobs. They went to great schools; their dads knew someone in the industry. They say they get it when it comes to diversity, but I don’t think they do. They might know what’s politically correct, but I don’t think they understand what’s correct.

How is that expressed?
The ad culture is all about sexual innuendo. And joking around. And dropping the F-bomb. It’s inappropriate, and our culture as a whole has gotten this way. But what’s happening now is that it’s going the other way. But not in a good way. People are now afraid to speak at work.

How does HR play into that?
Two things. One, the culture of agencies is changing because on the face of it, people are afraid to joke around. Two, I think because of [Instagram account] Diet Madison Avenue and #MeToo, I think that HR is paying attention, but not because they should, but because it’s a liability. But the fact is, if you’re putting a complaint against a senior-level person who is more important than you, they will take the senior’s side.

Explain.
HR is really siloed, as much as they say they’re not. I know it’s siloed. I don’t feel like HR works in tandem in with corporate comms.

Give me an example.
Let’s say it’s layoffs, not even harassment stuff. Sometimes, there is an agencywide email that explains the cuts. But usually what happens is people get laid off, and they hear rumors internally. That ruins the culture. People are scared for their jobs and are angry.

Social media has helped a lot of rumors and allegations surface.
People already know the truth. People aren’t stupid. When there are companies who are firing someone at the top, there are usually other people at the top who have protected the harasser or abuser. Once your culture is poisoned by a negative leader or organization, it’s important to adjust it. I don’t think it’s a huge town hall meeting. Not enough agencies do the small-group thing, department by department, floor by floor. Hearing from their boss and senior management is so important. I don’t think enough marketing companies do what they should be doing with PR 101, which is getting ahead of the issue.

How does HR deal with rumors?
They just don’t, and part of it is that PR has to be part of the conversation. I don’t think they often are. Unlike other industries, I think agencies aren’t getting ahead of the story. I work with CEOs who simply pretend it’s not happening around them, that there aren’t rumors about people. You kind of see that they want to pretend it never happened, that it’s going to go away.

Why?
This is speculation, but HR is female. The toughest women are the best gatekeepers when it comes to getting information out. Same with PR. Some of the most respected PR people are really hard on reporters and protect the company no matter what. HR does it, too. Agencies have a problem, but they have an HR problem.

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