Maurice, we don’t think this is minor

In this guest column, Bec Brideson weighs in on the fight between Maurice Levy and Sir Martin Sorrell on the issue of sexism in adland.

The past few years have seen surprising facts come to light about some once-revered people. There was Rolf Harris guilty of abusing his celebrity, there’s ‘America’s Dad’ Bill Cosby getting found out for serial crimes against women, and of course George Pell, condemned for his silence and failure to act in the interest of the vulnerable.

The bottom line is that times are changing, and tolerance for unacceptable behaviour is low. Privilege and power no longer shield old-boy networks from scrutiny or consequences.

Recently in the advertising industry we’ve been undergoing our own kind of exposure of the ‘sins of the father’. Our crime: the sagging underbelly of misogyny including a lack of diversity, sexual harassment of women and discrimination against people of colour and ethnicity.

As a result of the timing of the Gustavo Martinez/JWT scandal and the 4A’s conference on its heels, the issue has taken flight.

We witnessed Maurice Levy and Sir Martin Sorrell climb on to the ‘what are we doing about diversity’ platform and turn this into what might best be described as an opportunity for the two dominant silverback gorillas to throw excrement at each other.

Around this same time, one of Maurice and Charles Saatchi’s co-founder and director, David Kershaw, made an interesting statement to the press about “shoving women”. The irony of his adjective was not lost, though his point about being seen to promote senior women might have been.

Despite being absolutely okay about having NOT ONE woman on their own board, they are chest-beating about promoting women elsewhere in the business.

This is most definitely why they call it “unconscious” bias.  If you want to see more check this out:  #changetheoptics #changetheratio and maybe David, try changing the language.

It’s an interesting corollary for women in the workforce when the men who perpetrate indecent behavior get promoted and glorified despite the abject moral code.

In 2010, a high profile retail CEO in Australia fell from grace for behaviour that was out of line. Disgraced, the ex-CEO left the country and escaped the media storm only to resurface at home making headlines again: this time being announced as  “bad boy” and “Captain’s pick” for Australia’s biggest specialty retailer.

The implicit message in this reads loud and clear: it’s okay for the boys in the “frat house” to act this way and they will not suffer.

Or is the message that dollars speak louder to the equity companies than morals? Conversely, women are told to keep quiet and suck it up, or their own reputations will be tarnished and they will be rendered unemployable.

The happily-ever-after on the horizon is that change is afoot across all walks of life. But did it have to take one woman to be killed every week for domestic violence to be taken seriously? Did we really need there to be 60 Bill Cosby victims? Because surely one should have been enough.

I often wonder what is the best course of action for women who are harassed in the workplace? Perhaps if we were more ready to protect women elsewhere it would be more natural in a work setting, too?

Recently I wrote an article with practical advice for females to follow, as there seems to be a complete paucity of it in the industry. In my 25 years of advertising I can tell you it happens and it happens often.

It happens to women of every level and the only way to cure it is to talk about it, give it the bandwidth it deserves in the media, and give the issue ‘spotlight’ until it is dealt with and eradicated.

Is this behaviour one of the reasons women fall out of the advertising industry? You bet it is.

As if the glass ceiling is not intimidating enough, the extra degree of difficulty thrown in by some chiefs and senior leaders makes the ascendancy all but impossible.

It becomes a ‘sell out, give up or build your own future’ equation. I opted for the latter. And even as the first Australian woman to speak at the Cannes Lions, I could not get press coverage by my own industry, nor wider media.

Never mind the fact that I was speaking on this very hot topic of the power of diversity and the reasons why we must take the lucrative female audience seriously.

I am well aware of the risks of speaking up on this subject, should the important message about the massive female market-opportunity be confused with the discussion about discrimination and gender equality. In fact, it has kept me silenced for years.

But when one reviews special reports such as that from Ernst and Young on the state of diversity and the 117 years it will take to get there, it’s hard to stay quiet.

Women are inheriting the dynamics of a history when men were Vikings and no one knew any better. Fast forward 1200 years of evolution and women are not trying to upset the apple cart, rather they just want to have a fair share at selling apples without the other B.S.

Erin Johnson was the woman on the receiving end of Martinez’s poor form at JWT, and she’d had enough of looking the other way and excusing him. Long after his name disappears from our newsfeeds and fingertips, she may just carry on in history thanks to her courageous ‘Rosa Parkes moment’.

She is a hero for providing a voice for women in the industry. If Erin Johnson had simply accepted the deal and ‘moved to the back of the bus’ then Martin and Maurice might not have had this forced on their agenda, and all of us may not be having conversations like this.

Because it is this uncomfortably hard stuff that actually shifts the status quo and helps the major flaws in our industry undergo the necessary transformations.

Bec Brideson is a marketing-to-women pioneer helping brands and business leverage the growing female economy with more than 20 years advertising experience and insight. Bec is head of her own agency and was one of only 3% of females to attain the title of creative director.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.