Bullying: Advertising’s hidden menace

As distressed staff seek counselling and often look for different careers, agencies still turn a blind eye to bullying. What can they do to remove personal abuse from the daily office routine?

As distressed staff seek counselling and often look for different

careers, agencies still turn a blind eye to bullying. What can they do

to remove personal abuse from the daily office routine?

I suppose I ought to come clean. I was never a super-effective account

handler, and I suffered from occasional bouts of bullying. It wasn’t

particularly severe, or even maliciously meant, but when I told my

friends in the pub what could happen to a junior account handler in an

ad agency they were astonished and horrified. And this is the gist of

the issue; behaviour that would be considered outrageous in many

institutions can be considered the norm in the often macho world of the


In my time in advertising I had an ashtray thrown at my head (the mark

in the wall still exists today, I’m told) and my personal record for

being called a cunt at work is seven times in one week. In one

extraordinary incident I returned to the agency having failed to sell

what one could most charitably describe as a controversial piece of

creative work, I received the anticipated bollocking from a creative

director (consisting of being shouted at and told how useless I was) and

went back to my office, where the phone rang. It was the same creative

director. He had decided that the first bollocking was not severe

enough, so I had to return for round two; this time a small crowd had

gathered - it was the advertising equivalent of a public execution.

What happened to me is not particularly unusual, and far worse things

happen to plenty of other people. Horror stories abound, including a

young account man at one small creative agency who had a nervous

breakdown precipitated by a creative director (the account man was found

hiding under his desk), a girl who was physically prevented from

entering her agency having failed to sell some ads in a bizarre

enactment of the old cliche (don’t come back unless you sell it), and

another executive at a large and well-respected agency who was so

terrified of his creatives that when he dropped some artwork, rather

than confess, he was found in tears desperately trying to tape it


The dictionary defines bullying as behaviour designed ‘to frighten or

coerce someone into submission or obedience’, but that bald statement

does not do justice to the misery that a victim of bullying can

experience. The general secretary of NABS, Denise Larkin, is in a better

position than most to discuss the issue. NABS deals with around a dozen

cases a year of people requiring some form of counselling as a result of

bullying, although this figure was higher during the recession.

Larkin identifies a kind of advertising code of omerta, which makes the

bullied reluctant to come forward and means that the issue goes

virtually undiscussed. ‘There is a fear among victims of bullying that,

in what is a relatively small industry, they may not be employed again

if they divulge confidences about their employers, and so frequently the

perpetrators not only go unpunished, but also go unnoticed.’ This is

compounded by a culture common in most agencies that success is all.

Larkin says this belief is often shared by the bullied, who think that

‘if they are a victim, they are also a failure, and therefore are

reluctant to come to terms with the bullying’.

NABS offers advice to victims of bullying that ranges from providing the

telephone number of a good headhunter to giving the name of a therapist.

Gloria May counsels people who have suffered abuse at work. She agrees

with Larkin that bullies tend to be inadequate and that ‘they seek power

over others, because they don’t have it over themselves. Bullying often

takes place in organisations with fluid hierarchies, because bullies

become insecure when there is no outward manifestation of their worth.’

However, she also believes that some people are ‘just bastards’ and in

advertising they are more likely to have the ability to recognise weak

points in a person and exploit them.

May says that victims of bullying can ‘lose a sense of themselves and

become uncertain about everything they do. If you’re a people pleaser,

you’re in a bad position. You need to deal with things on a micro level

- nothing is too small to bother with - and then you won’t have a macro

problem.’ She believes that ridicule is a key strategy, as is ‘trying to

separate the personal from what you want to achieve’, and simply

pointing out what is going on, although this is often not possible when

the bully is more senior than you.

Larkin believes that while the senior management of some agencies

doesn’t know bullying goes on, others turn a blind eye to it. ‘Often the

bully is highly thought of it: if he uses colourful language then people

say ‘that’s just the way X is’ and if he gets results, nobody questions

his methods.’

But why is advertising so prone to bad behaviour, and why in particular

does animosity develop between account handlers and creatives? Alan

Midgley, the creative director at Foote Cone and Belding, believes that

tempers get frayed because ‘creative departments do ads and account

handlers sometimes fail to sell them. The good account handlers are

revered and the bad ones are reviled. You put a lot of heart and soul

into an ad and it’s frustrating when it’s not sold.’ There is, he says,

a place for the tantrum: ‘It’s right that there should be rows because

in good agencies passions run high over advertising.’ This point is

probably appreciated less by the people on the receiving end of a

creative bollocking.

Steve Henry of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, an agency with an excellent

reputation for co-operation between departments and individuals,

believes that bullying is sometimes exacerbated in other agencies by the

physical separation of people from different departments. ‘Creatives and

account handlers often grow up in cultures where people look for others

to blame - and it’s an easy habit to grow into,’ he says. ‘If you create

things you can have the belief that your work is inherently valuable.’

NABS singles Saatchi and Saatchi out for praise for its treatment of its

staff and the agency has recently introduced a formal sex discrimination

policy to combat one feature of bullying. Kate Morris runs the Saatchis

personnel department and says that when bullying takes place it’s most

likely to be manifested in the way young account handlers are treated by

their immediate superiors. Morris believes that bullying can take a

variety of forms, but most commonly would involve putting someone down

in front of colleagues or clients, continually undermining their point

of view or asking them to work long hours when it is not necessary.

Morris has not had to deal with a bullying incident, because, she says,

the agency has created a culture in which it is unlikely to happen.

There are formal assessments, channels to discuss problems

confidentially with staff you don’t work with and an overt stance from

the management that bullying will not be tolerated. ‘It is important to

create a culture in which you are not bollocked for taking risks and, if

something goes wrong, you are patted on the back and told to get ready

for the next time,’ she explains.

In the current debate about why advertising is failing to attract the

best people, perhaps the answer is simple. The issue is not about

remuneration or getting responsibility early. Maybe graduates don’t wish

to work in organisations where some level of abuse is part of the

routine. As Midgley says: ‘Why would anyone want to be an account


The bullied: case studies

Unable to cope

X graduated with a degree in philosophy from a provincial university and

got a job as a trainee account handler at a multinational agency. On the

face of it, philosophy does not contribute a great deal to the

understanding of the advertising process, but plenty of people have more

arcane qualifications and cope very well. For X, however, philosophy was

not merely a degree - more a statement of intent of how to approach even

simple problems. X started off with boundless good humour and energy,

but was unable to focus it on mundane tasks such as writing contact

reports and summaries of Nielsen activity, much to the irritation of her

boss. X’s boss (under pressure herself) became increasingly dissatisfied

and vocal. After one dressing down in front of the client, X was reduced

to tears, and a vicious circle had begun.

X lost confidence and her work deteriorated further. She was so

inexperienced that she didn’t know her boss was different from all

others. Her stress manifested itself in panic attacks and eczema.

Eventually X was taken off the account, but the blow to her confidence

in the early stage of her career was too great and ultimately she had to

leave the advertising profession.

Obsessed with detail

Victims of bullying come frequently from middle management. Y was an

account director at a small agency with a creative bias; he had an eye

for detail, and occasionally felt uneasy with the leap of faith that the

creation of advertising often requires. These traits manifested

themselves in his approach to business. He was infamous for his lengthy

memos to creatives detailing exactly what he thought they had agreed to

do after interminable meetings, the fact that he would turn up at 9am

precisely every morning and his obsessively neat desk.

The laughs behind his back became louder and louder until he became

publicly acknowledged as a figure of fun. It was impossible for him to

do his job properly, as even his peer group and the agency’s senior

management (possibly seeking approval from the creative department)

failed to give him the support he needed to produce the work his clients

were demanding. Y felt that not only his abilities as an account man

were under question, but also his value as a human being. Phlegmatic to

the last, Y recognised that his personal qualities were ill-suited to

this agency’s culture and left. He has subsequently been very successful

at another agency.

What you can do

According to James Davies, a partner in the employment group at the

leading law firm, Lewis Silkin, there is no direct legislation

concerning bullying at work. However, there are a number of steps that a

victim of bullying can take in order to obtain compensation.

* An employer has a duty of trust and confidence towards an employee and

failing to prevent bullying could indicate a breach of these duties. A

victim of bullying could leave and sue for constructive dismissal.

* Frequently there is a racial or sexual dimension to bullying and a

victim might be able to claim under race or sex discrimination

legislation. Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be about sex; it can

include remarks about your appearance. Here damages are unlimited and

you can claim for injury to feelings. Victims can also sue guilty

individuals, as well as employers and can claim without leaving.

* Under health and safety legislation, an employer has a duty to provide

a safe place to work. Health covers mental distress. If an employee

asserts a health and safety concern, an employer must act on it. If the

employee is dismissed, the dismissal is automatically unfair. If nothing

is done, but the employee stays, they can bring a case against their


Davies believes that, following the US example, employees in the UK are

becoming more willing to assert their rights. He urges agencies to

defend themselves against possible legal action by establishing an equal

opportunities policy and setting up a system to monitor how individuals

are treated in an organisation.

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