Only the ad industry’s Weinsteins should fear Cindy Gallop’s ‘witch hunt’

Cindy Gallop’s request for anonymous reports of sexual harassment in the ad industry seem to go too far, but empirical and anecdotal evidence shows the problem is real and can only be fought by naming names.

Marketers, like pretty much everyone else on the planet, now live in a post-Weinstein world. The lurid and seemingly never-ending allegations about one of Hollywood’s most famous producers and his now infamous predatory behaviour has sparked a series of discussions about the influence of misogyny, power and sex within our little corner of the world in marketing.

We are, after all, an industry that is dominated by old men. We try to keep the conference sessions balanced and someone in a marketing meeting will occasionally write diversity on a white board while everyone in attendance nods sagely, but the faces that appear at the top of the marketing ‘org chart’ and across the marketing media (and columnist) roles are demonstrably and depressingly male and wrinkly.

To add fuel to the Weinstein bonfire that is now crackling into life beneath our feet in marketing, we are also an industry populated at the lower levels by a significant proportion of young women. Across the marketing departments and advertising agencies of this fair land it’s apparent that women flock to our discipline in greater numbers than men.

Yet clearly something happens to them in the intervening years because if you press the fast forward button – at least on the generation of talented young female marketers that I knew in the late 1980s – you end up with very few of them making it to the top, while the same proportion of male leaders sit there a quarter-century later.

You can argue, of course, with various degrees of surface plausibility, that there are good reasons for men to rise to the top and women to, well, stay where they are. You can make the Kevin Robert’s excuse and claim, as the former Saatchi & Saatchi chairman did, that gender discrimination is not an issue because women possess different, less “vertical” career ambitions compared to men and should be congratulated for it.

You can opt for the cod-science approach of former Google engineer James Damore and use lots of charts to justify the presence of more men than women, and hide your sexism under a thick, reassuring blanket of data.

Or you can go the creative route like M&C Saatchi’s Justin Tindall and proclaim yourself “bored” with the marketing industry’s obsession with diversity, and yearn for the bygone days of marketing when “talent” not equality drove the hiring agenda. And then wind it all back in a hilariously apologetic retraction that looks suspiciously like someone more important was stood over you while you typed it.

Marketing has a surfeit of old men who manage an army of younger women. That tells you something is wrong with the way diversity is managed and promoted within our discipline.

Before I become too sanctimonious let me put my own big hairy hand up too. I admit in the past I have used a Powerpoint deck exclusively featuring old, white males – 12 of them in total – to define the concept of branding to my MBA students, while neatly avoiding any mention of definitions from other demographics.

I also confess to giving a conference speech in which, rather foolishly I now acknowledge, I used the metaphor of measuring my penis to illustrate the failings of digital metrics. I am depressingly conscious that I should not be throwing stones inside the glass house of diversity without acknowledging that a couple of the broken panes were of my own doing.

But for all my past indiscretions, I have managed to survive a quarter-century of one-on-one meetings with female peers and subordinates without needing to ejaculate in a plant pot, massage anyone’s neck or appear at a meeting in a white, fluffy bathroom robe.

I do not want to sound flippant about the appalling behaviour of Weinstein but I do think it is important to draw a line between stupidly offensive and unacceptable comments that many older male marketers have disappointed others with and the outrageous sexual predation of women (and men) by senior executives in positions of power. Neither is justifiable, but the latter outweighs the former by a significant magnitude and that distinction should be made.

It is easy to conflate the two together. Marketing has a surfeit of old men who manage an army of younger women. To my earlier point, that tells you something is wrong with the way diversity is managed and promoted within our discipline. But does that mean we must have our own sub-group of Weinsteins patrolling the corridors of marketing and practising their appalling brand of sexual misconduct too? God, I hope not.

The problem, of course, is that as a relatively old male in a relative position of power I am not in any position to know either way. That means that I must acknowledge that Cindy Gallop’s recent request to name and shame those in positions of power within advertising that have engaged in this kind of abhorrent behaviour is legitimate and worthwhile.

I must admit when I first saw her request on Facebook and Twitter for those working in advertising to “end the Harvey Weinsteins of our industry” by sending her the names of the perpetrators, it gave me an immediate sense of revulsion. While I was sure it was well intended, the whole thing smacked of the kind of McCarthyism or Salem-style witch hunt usually associated with right-wing, rather than liberal, causes.

A word on Cindy Gallop: I have seen her speak and I have read, with growing admiration for her bombast and style, many of her essays and proclamations. Her Twitter handle – calling her the “Michael Bay of business” because she likes to “blow shit up” – is not just funny, it is accurate.

It was Gallop who excoriated Australian ad agency Leo Burnett with the immortal put-down, “what the fuck are U thinking?”, when it hired five white male creative directors and promoted the move with a blokey picture alongside their two white male bosses.

It was also Gallop who made even the Teflon-coated Gary Vaynerchuk perform a 180 after an invite to one of his agency’s events at Cannes asked for only “attractive females and models” to attend along with male executives.

And it was Gallop who once described our industry at a conference I attended as a closed loop of “white guys talking to other white guys about other white guys”, and made me gulp down my coffee and blink hard in abject realisation that she was a) right b) saying something that had never occurred to me before and c) making me part of the problem. She rocks, is basically what I am saying.

But I’m not sure about this new campaign of hers. Not sure about it at all. Or perhaps it is more prudent to say I am genuinely in two minds.

One side of me finds the whole idea of people being nominated for sexual misconduct by anonymous accusers a step too far. The potential for bullying, unfounded accusations and career-threatening innuendo seems too great. It’s too much, even for Super Cindy. This time she has gone too far with her disciplinary TNT.

Gallop’s quest can only be classified as a ‘witch hunt’ if, as in the original Salem saga that inspired the term, the witches in question do not actually exist.

But my other side, which talks to me in quiet, measured tones when the loud side is snoring on the couch with a beer can on his chest, is telling me to step back and stay out of things I do not understand. It’s a dirty business but maybe there are a bunch of industry Weinsteins out there prowling the corridors of agencies and marketing departments and ruining the lives and careers of talented female (and male) subordinates.

The most powerful male executive of them all has repeatedly pressed himself on women, kissed them without consent and reached for their genitalia. And he has boasted of his disgusting predation to male peers who guffawed as he regaled them with his “pussy grabbing” exploits. If it’s possible to get away with this kind of thing and become President of the United States, surely it is equally tenable for senior marketing and advertising men too.

Gallop’s quest can only be classified as a ‘witch hunt’ if, as in the original Salem saga that inspired the term, the witches in question do not actually exist. There appears to be enough evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, to suggest that we do have our unfair share of sexual harassers within advertising and marketing. A recent survey of female advertising agency employees in Australia, for example, revealed that more than 40% had directly experienced sexual harassment at some point during their advertising careers. Half that group had experienced it more than once.

Do we really think the UK would be any different? This survey means either that harassment is endemic among a wide proportion of men employed in marketing and advertising roles, or that a small number of predators are repeatedly attacking women at work. I’m unsure which explanation disgusts me more.

Gallop’s comments since she made her request for names on social media suggest she has uncovered significant evidence of harassment. A number of senior ad industry ‘luminaries’ keep recurring in the submissions she has received but she is as angry with a system that appears to accept, justify and hide the harassment taking place within the industry as she is with the predators themselves.

“The only thing that will break this appalling cycle,” Gallop noted this week, “is women and men brave enough to speak up, name names and be publicly quoted.” Time will tell whether she gets the bravery she is hoping for and what effect it will have on our industry.