Aishwarya Ramesh

As Zoe Scaman’s post around sexual harassment in advertising shocks readers...

... we ask ad executives – should this be resolved at the agency, or industry level? Also, how can the ad industry create a safe environment for women?

In 2018, the #MeToo movement broke out, ruffling feathers in the advertising industry. Women came forward to share their experiences, and many big names in the industry came under the scanner. In recent times, the conversation around sexism in the industry has started again – thanks to an article written by Zoe Scaman, an British author. She is the founder of a strategy company called Bodacious in the U.K.

Her article is harrowing, and difficult to get past. Women may feel that uncomfortable heaviness in their chest when they read it – knowing that it could happen to them at any time. Men may be horrified that this kind of behaviour still persists. This is the kind of article that has to be read, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel.

After all, abusers rely on silence to keep their tracks hidden, so to speak. The article goes beyond talking solely of sexual assault and acknowledges other times the ad industry has been unfair to women. It addresses microaggressions (such as sexist jokes), inequality in wages of men and women, and online harassment over emails, Zoom calls and Skype meetings (something that has arisen, thanks to the advent of work from home, or WFH).

Members of the Indian advertising industry shared the article, and all of them share the collective sentiment that the industry, as a whole, has a long way to go.

In India, The Collective was formed in 2018. It is a group of advertising professionals who have come together to combat misogyny in the advertising space.

“We are a group of women, who love this business and have given it our all, for decades now. We will help create a safe work culture for women and men in advertising, digital and design agencies around the country. Reaching independent agencies is part of this initiative, and we are looking forward to their co-operation, to make this a success,” wrote its members in an open address.

The question that has to be answered is – what are the steps that can be taken to ensure that we create a safe environment for women? Does change come from the agency level, or will it help if an industry body, like the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), or The India Chapter of the International Advertising Association (IAA) step in? We chatted with some ad land veterans, who had some suggestions.

Edited excerpts:

Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder and director, Elephant Design

The ad world is doing a fantastic job of putting out work, which is sensitive and champions gender equality. However, we need to relook the environment in the agencies that create these ads. For any fundamental change that happens, we need to see a change in bodies, policies and their strategies to deal with sexism.

Ashwini Deshpande
Ashwini Deshpande

It’s not just enough to have a regulatory body, or certain policies against it. It’s also important to make it clear what behaviour is acceptable, and what isn’t. When regulatory bodies in the ad world have representation of women at the leadership level, that’s when change will happen.

Within agencies also, there needs to be introspection – of the culture, the policies, and whether they are being implemented. What happened with the #MeToo movement was that it led to a sort of awakening – people relooked their policies, put new ones in place, etc. The most important part is that it gave people the courage to speak to their peers about their experiences.

Tista Sen, regional creative director, Wunderman Thompson

I know forums that are discussing this issue, and many agencies have also set up POSH committees. These committees now also have women members on their panel. The onus isn’t on any particular body, it’s on every member of the industry to ensure that there is a safe space for women.

Tista Sen
Tista Sen

My biggest endeavour at The Collective is to provide that safe space. We are agency agnostic and noticed that WFH has made women more vocal about issues too. The thing about Zoe’s article is, women are still quoted anonymously. When The Collective ran a campaign for Women’s Day, we had women from across the industry go on record and speak up about their work experiences. This wasn’t the case two years ago.

Sambit Mohanty, creative head, McCann South

It goes without saying, but it has to be said. Sexism and sexual harassment have to be dealt with a very firm, zero-tolerance approach – both at an agency level and the industry at large. Any such matter shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial, or casual and a thorough investigation should be mandated before assigning culpability. To my mind, that’s the only way of nipping this evil in the bud.

Sambit Mohanty
Sambit Mohanty

The #MeToo movement has certainly acted as a wake-up call for agencies to take cognisance of this issue and the onus is on them to ensure a better, safer working environment for women. This brushing-under-the-carpet is clearly a thing of the past.

Have news to share? Write to us