The real price of 'Top 5' emails for women in advertising
A view from Sara Keegan & Robуn Frost

The real price of 'Top 5' emails for women in advertising

The email from a departing planner at The & Partnership ranking women by their looks is a symptom of an industry culture which excludes and alienates women.

If we asked you to put into writing the Top 5 People you find attractive, or "want to fuck", you’d be forgiven for thinking we were a couple of stereotypical bros approaching you during the hazing period of the academic year. Sadly, this isn’t a task put forward by a fraternity, but the subject matter of an all-agency email. It’s a practice that’s widely-regarded as a ‘tradition’ at several of London’s top agencies that we, and many people apparently, are aware of. The final initiation to claim your place in the Boys Club, if you will.

But it’s just an email, right?

It’s not just an email. We’ve successfully created an environment where not only is this behaviour acceptable, it’s encouraged. An environment where graduates are left questioning whether or not the agency they’re set to go to is safe for women. Where juniors are leaving almost as soon as they start because they’re being sexually harassed – alongside those who have endured it for years. Where the refusal to conform to abuse results in berating.

Advertising’s #MeToo reckoning

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we’re finally acknowledging the all too frequent occurrences of sexual harassment. Regardless of whether or not someone reports such abuses of power, we’ve always been capable of separating right and wrong in the most extreme cases. It’s the grey area that’s tricky. It’s easy for us to all agree that it’s wrong to grope someone (not that this stops people). But it’s harder in instances like seemingly throwaway comments, jokes, inappropriate texts, or an all-agency email to decide what’s not okay.

The grey area exists because we’ve normalised such behaviours. And if it’s normalised, it certainly won’t be deemed worthy of confrontation or repercussions by management. But as Jo Brand explained to the all-male Have I Got News For You panel in November last year, "for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up – and that wears you down." In a time where you’re at risk of being manipulated, abused and assaulted by your seniors and contemporaries; are you going to speak up when someone comments on the way you dress, or their desire to fuck you? Possibly not.

Change is obligatory

Agencies are preceded by their reputations – and now, it’s no longer enough to boast a client roster of the world’s biggest brands if the culture is toxic. Many shops publicly celebrated International Women’s Day with messages of solidarity, but those values don’t count for much if they’re not reflected in day to day practices.

We need to start realising that change is obligatory. Those in positions of power can influence how a safe environment is established, making space for employees to come forwards and report harassment – but there’s more. There’s a real opportunity to encourage the next generation to shift the dial. In a similar way to clients mandating a certain number of women on an account or in a pitch, so many juniors and mid-weights are starting to do the same. Is the agency diverse? What’s the culture like? Is there a Top 5 list?

In response to this, let’s start our own tradition. To co-opt the Top 5 emails by launching an alternative – the Top 5 Women We Admire. Stop objectifying your female colleagues; they don’t exist to satisfy your sexual desires. Instead let’s celebrate them, using the former derogatory platform to champion them.

Together we can make steps to collectively change, and hopefully abolish, the toxic masculinity in our industry. It’s worth remembering that toxic masculinity doesn’t just affect women, it affects men too. It acts as a standard by which men are measured and expected to follow. Let’s put an end to it.

Rewriting the narrative: Our own list of 10 brilliant women in agencies, a combined Top 5

Ali Hanan – for her fearless pursuit of action and equality, lifting everyone as she goes;

Mara Lecocq – for telling us where all the boss ladies are;

Megan Colleen McGlynn – for celebrating and supporting thousands of ad-women through the Girlsday group;

Scarlett Montanaro – for using her creative powers for good;

Ade Onilude – for championing women and inclusivity 24/7;

Cindy Gallop – for being a relentless force for change and accountability;

Leyya Sattar and Roshni Goyate – for creating game-changing platform The Other Box, all the while bossing their day jobs;

Julie Herskin – for her ability to hold the room and nail every creative presentation;

Charlotte Hugh – for her drive and determination in helping emerging talent rise.

Sara Keegan is a strategist at 18 Feet & Rising, and Robyn Frost is a creative at Poke London