'My experience killed every particle of love I had for advertising'

With tales of sexual harassment pouring out of the advertising industry a female creative shares how abuse killed her creative ambition.

'My experience killed every particle of love I had for advertising'

I have every sympathy with the actresses who are at last speaking out against Harvey Weinstein, and I totally understand why they haven’t told  their stories until now, when they are at the top of their game and empowered.

Even as an outspoken, tough cookie advertising executive, close to the top of my game, this was, and still is, an impossible subject to broach without fear of losing work and being blacklisted by the powers that be.

I’m not "bandwagoning", I’ve buried my story deep inside me for years, but it feels as though women are at last opening the windows and letting  out the wretched oppression we’ve lived with for decades. If I cannot tell of my experience now, while people are willing to listen, I never will.

Before I go on, I was not raped or physically abused, I do not pretend that I have been groped or forced to have sex like some of these poor women. I was, however, verbally and mentally abused and publicly humiliated because of my sex.

After nearly 20 years of success working in advertising, with brilliant, respectful male creative directors, such as John Hegarty, Malcolm Gaskin, Chris Palmer, Mark Denton, Jon Greenhalgh, Kes Gray, Peter Souter  and Bill Oberlander, and inspirational female mentors Barbara Noakes and MT Rainey, with whom I was, in hindsight, spoiled and protected, nothing could have prepared me for my final agency experience that became a living nightmare. I was treated like a piece of meat.

It was the mid-90s, I took a job at an agency to work with the creative director, but instead I was shoved in a stinky, unpleasant room and left there. I should have listened to my gut and left on that first day.

I was the token female in a creative department that was, apart from me, 100% male. They were mostly over the age of 30, but acted like a gang of kids, with their long shirts and boys' club cricket in the common area. They were loud, "laddy" and loutish.

During my first week, I made a birthday cake for one of the creatives. As I placed the cake on the table and said "Happy birthday", the recipient dipped his finger into the cream and said "What’s this – nipple milk?" There was raucous laughter all round. I was mortified; dumbstruck. I didn’t make another cake or attempt to ingratiate myself from that day on.

A couple of months in, at the first board meeting I was shocked to discover I was the only woman on the board. Yet there were so many strong  and fabulous women at the company in the accounts, planning and TV departments. I made a resolution to nominate more women to the board.

If the males were mostly older, the agency administrative females were mostly tall, leggy, blonde, very posh and very very young. At agency parties, you’d have young girls being chased by men three times their age, it was really revolting. This was reflected in the agency’s advertising; older men cavorting with young girls, supposedly their partners, yet young enough to be their granddaughters. Living the dream.

Advertising's boys' club mentality

Individually the guys at the agency were mostly OK; one or two are my friends on Facebook. En masse, however, they acted with menace. It was not their fault entirely; attitudes trickle from the top, and at the top was a macho bully with considerable ego, who encouraged and presided over a culture of bullying. It was monstrous. His favourite "gag" was: "Why do women wear perfume? Because they stink!"

One day, I heard loud banging and shouting from the next office, then suddenly I witnessed one of the brilliant account women I’d nominated  to the board being threatened by one of the creatives, who was swearing and waving a baseball bat, as he aggressively chased her out of the creative department. Apparently she’d suggested a change to one of their ads. The woman brought a grievance complaint against this creative with the management, but the boys club closed ranks and she was "made redundant".

In a script presentation, the account team and creatives (all male) sat along a low couch next to the creative director, perched behind a high desk. I stood up to present my idea. Halfway through, while in mid-sentence, the creative director said loudly: "Your tits are looking great today!"

I stopped, stunned. The room fell silent. I said "Do you mind, I’m in the middle of a presentation…" He turned to the other men in the room  and said: "See, she can’t even take a compliment!" Those were his exact words.

Death by a thousand paper cuts

I felt so unhappy and victimised during that time; my confidence was at an all-time low. I confided in a fellow female creative over a drink. At 10pm the following Saturday evening, I had a call from a friend, who’d had a call from a journalist at Campaign magazine, telling her that the story in Cannes was that I was going to be fired first thing Monday morning.

It seemed everyone had been told I was going to be fired, except me. I remember being in the agency studio and one of the guys said with pity: "We’re really sorry to hear you’re leaving." He looked at my face and said "God, you haven’t been told have you?"

Still at the agency, now with an axe over my head and being starved of work, wretched and wondering how on earth I had ended up somewhere so low, degrading and stifling, my then boyfriend (now husband) came to meet me from work. He hadn’t been to the agency before and asked the gang of creatives (who were drinking beer and watching TFI Friday)  where my office was. The tall one replied straight-faced and in all seriousness: "Oh don’t you know, she’s dead… She got killed by a truck today." For a moment my boyfriend was stunned, until the raucous laughter broke his belief. He came into my office and  said: "Pack your stuff, you’re getting out of here".

A legal fightback

Shortly after the other women I’d nominated for the board and I were "made redundant", I was convinced we had a good case for discrimination. Plus one of the other women had a pile of emails of a "sexual nature" from the creative director. We met a few times, sought a brilliant solicitor and were going to sue. The solicitor was rubbing his hands, this case would have been one of the first of its kind. But the other women were on short contracts, and were told they would not get paid until they signed a gagging order to say they’d leave quietly without a fuss.

Although I was prepared to go it alone, it was all-consuming and, stupidly, I thought this man was so powerful and seemingly untouchable that I honestly believed it would be the end of me. Then the agency held my car to ransom if I continued with the lawsuit. They told me that they’d already found a buyer. It was a desperate measure, but it worked. It has been my biggest regret (although I still have my beloved car to this day).

People said to me at the time: "You’re so brave to leave a career you were successful in." For me, it was a no-brainer.

Killing a creative ambition

I gave advertising everything I had; it was my life. I lived and breathed advertising and loved everything and [almost] everyone in it. But  like a boyfriend who has hurt and betrayed you, I fell out of love and could never go back. I haven’t even dipped my toe into freelance. My experience killed every particle of love I had for advertising stone dead. My whole being actually recoils at the thought  of working as a creative in an advertising agency again.

This was 20 years ago, there wasn’t so much room for a woman to be a woman with attitude, especially a busty woman who didn’t respond to flirting and outrageous innuendo. That is why, with women pouring out now, from the very top of the highest echelons of Testosterone Towers and corporate maledom, it is critical that we,  all of us, open the windows, because the time is right to let this vile stench out once and for all.

#MeToo

No one should have to experience sexual harassment; anytime or anywhere. If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, contact NABS who can offer confidential advice and support on 0800 707 6607 or support@nabs.org.uk.