The Limits of a Sea Change

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Credit: Mary Ellen Forte

#MeToo. The Woman in the Room. Cindy Gallop's mission to expose the "Harvey Weinsteins" of advertising. In recent weeks sexual harassment allegations have reached an all-time intensity, spotlighting sexism and predatory behavior in the male-dominated ad world.

But talk is cheap, say women in the marketing trenches. It's action that's needed, and they're not seeing it yet.

"Earlier this month, half of the world found out what the other half always knew—that we live in a world that is chauvinistic, paternalistic and where the powerful prey on the powerless," says Hill Holliday CEO Karen Kaplan. "Any woman can tell you that the default system in corporate America is male, and until we force institutional change, women will continue to be preyed upon."

For all the #MeToo hashtags encouraging women to tell their harassment stories and the empowerment posters being sent by the self-identified tech executives behind the anonymous Woman in the Room project, the fact remains that men continue to hold the vast majority of CEO and other top-level positions at ad agencies. The boys' club still exists. One ad executive who asked not to be identified pointed to former JWT chairman and CEO Gustavo Martinez, who is the subject of a discrimination lawsuit filed by the agency's female former communications chief, yet remains employed by WPP working on "Spanish projects," according to the holding company.

This moment is unlikely to even yield a new wave of empowerment campaigns.

That's partly because brands could get caught merely talking the talk. Case in point: Fearless Girl. The bronze statue went from shining example of female empowerment to a symbol of hypocrisy after State Street Corp., the parent of the company that erected Fearless Girl, settled with the U.S. Labor Department over allegations that it paid hundreds of female and black executives less than their male and white counterparts.

Similar fears could put a damper on empowerment campaigns, says Terri & Sandy co-founder and CEO Sandy Greenberg, because brands could be wary of exposing skeletons in their own closets. "The furor towards companies that are shown to be hypocritical is enormous," she says.

"I am confident [brands and agencies will] both be more conscious of putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to standing for issues," says Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer of Goodby Silverstein & Partners. "On the flip side, I also hope the scrutiny doesn't intimidate companies from taking bold stances."

No fearless brands
Kaplan believes that marketers won't touch anything related to sexual harassment, just as they stayed away from the Black Lives Matter movement. "There's not a single brand that can claim the moral high ground on this issue because no brand will be able to stand up to the scrutiny and confidently affirm that it isn't happening inside their own company, because it most likely is," she says.

Jim Winters, president of Badger & Winters, the agency behind the lauded #WomenNotObjects initiative, does believe at least some progress will result from the current focus.

All of the recent women's movements will drive brands and agencies to create more "thoughtful advertising," he says, and be more deliberate about how they portray both men and women. "If every creative powerhouse in advertising used their power for good, just imagine what we could do."

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