In early January, an account director at an advertising agency sat in a conference room along with two senior-level people from her agency as her client, a Fortune 500 advertiser’s brand manager, screamed obscenities at her through the speakerphone. Ostensibly, the client was upset about an issue that the agency wasn’t responsible for. But the conversation had quickly devolved from disappointment to open berating to what she called “verifiable, 100 percent bullying.”

The staffer went to human resources at her agency, saying this was the latest in a pattern where the client called her names and raised his voice at her. The HR department didn’t do anything. The senior executives in the agency advised her to just “take it.”

Interviews with senior-level and junior-level employees inside agencies reveal a pattern of bullying and verbal harassment inside ad agencies. Some pinpoint the prevalence of bullying to agencies’ culture of rejection, “thick skins” and the power imbalance inherent to services businesses.

Digiday research backs this up. Harassment and discrimination remain problems at agencies, according to the results of a Digiday survey taken by 446 agency professionals. The survey, which was fielded in January, found that 49 percent of women said they have been the victim of workplace harassment. Among Digiday survey respondents who experienced workplace harassment, 77 percent said that they had experienced verbal harassment.

Eighty-two percent of men and 74 percent of women who had experienced harassment said it was verbal.

How it manifests runs the gamut. For one staffer, it came in the form of name-calling and yelling. In this person’s case, it felt to her like her boss wanted to show to her higher-ups that she could be tough. “There’s no doubt there’s verbal bullying and harassment at agencies,” said this person. “Basically, there was a dynamic between her and her boss, and it came in the form of it being better for her to come off as a bully. It’s overcompensation.”

For another agency employee, bullying came in the form of targeted name-calling — “he’d keep telling me ‘you’re a lazy prick,’” said this person. There was also what he called an overwhelming sense that “this person was out to get me,” by consistently talking down to him during meetings, spreading gossip, and other ways. “There didn’t seem to be a reason why, except that he didn’t like me,” the staffer said. At one point, a rumor spread that he was having an affair with someone at work. It only stopped after the bully ended up being promoted to running another office.

A Society of Human Resource Management study found that 51 percent of organizations report incidents of bullying last year, with 62 percent reporting gossip or lies and 50 percent reporting threats. Another survey, sponsored by the Workplace Bullying Institute in 2010, found that 35 percent of U.S. workers have experienced or witnessed bullying. The survey also found that men bully other men more, while women bully other women.

Workplace bullying and verbal harassment, although related, are a little bit different. Bullying is not illegal  — mostly because no laws really exist to protect people from being bullied. Unlike race-based, gender-based or other forms of discrimination, those who are bullied aren’t considered a protected class unless that bullying spills over into harassment that is targeted because of race, gender, sexual orientation or another reason.

There are bills in the works in certain states to create “healthy workplaces” and afford legal protections for bullying. But those are yet to be turned into law.

“I think the issue is, I don’t even know what qualifies,” said a longtime agency staffer. “Is it someone cursing at you? Is it not being fair in the critique of my work? I have young employees crying because I give them feedback. Am I a bully?”

This person said that she’d been in one situation where she felt she was being ignored — literally, given the silent treatment — by a colleague. It felt like bullying because there was somewhat of a power differential, and she felt threatened.

For a fourth agency staffer, a group of colleagues would regularly go out for lunch and not invite him. He wonders, in retrospect, if he was being bullied. “Should I have said something? I figured it was just one of those things. Maybe young people are just more sensitive now.”

“I have a theory that to be successful in advertising you have to have thick skin,” said the first agency staffer, who was bullied by a client. “It’s this idea that the only people who rose to the top faced a ton of rejection and had thick skin. Previously, it was sexual in nature. Now, it’s this.”

It’s in some ways generational: Agency culture, especially in creative departments, thrived on the rejection of ideas, usually for good reason. But sometimes it feels, say employees, that it’s tough love for no reason. Those people who came through that way of working are now in senior-level positions at companies. “You have a sharky network on top. Maybe we’re sensitive to it now, but that’s what it is.”

At the 4A’s, there is an attempt to try help. A new workplace certification program, introduced last year, was aimed at helping agencies not only address sexual harassment issues, but also confront workplace bullying, seeking to arm execs with the knowledge needed to recognize and stop bullying. Simon Fenwick, who is leading the program at the 4A’s, said that it’s harder to train around bullying than harassment since harassment is illegal.

“Bullies often look great on paper, their skills and perceived relationship skills are driving success for the business,” said Fenwick. “Their client skills are amazing, but they’re still a bully.” The key is train bosses and HR to recognize that success is not just what that person brings in terms of revenue, but the impact they are having on workplace culture, and whether they’re driving people away, for example. “We as an industry need to note that skilled bullies are low performers because they have bad attitudes,” said Fenwick.

Fenwick said he anecdotally notices improvements, especially on the client front, where agencies are opting not to participate in RFPs where clients have bad reps. “The impact of a bad client is deeper to the bottom line than they think,” said Fenwick. “And for all the talk of harassment in the workplace, bullying has led to depression, to phobias to lots more. In some ways, it can have as much impact on the bottom line as an individual case of sex-based harassment.”

For a fifth agency employee, bullies have always been clients, not bosses or peers. “Big nightmares. These people have always been all about power trips. Treating us like we’re less than human.” That includes asking them to fly someplace for meetings only to cancel them or calling them at 4 a.m. with supposed problems. “None of us can say anything; this is our agency’s biggest client, and they know it. They’ve even held that over our heads. We’d sink if we lost them.”

As client-dependent businesses, especially in a climate where reviews are common and the threat of disintermediation always exists, bullying clients have become what appears to be the norm. “Putting up with clients like this is part of the job,” said this staffer.

Agencies find it tough to deal with bullying, mostly because it’s hard to identify. For everyone interviewed for this story, whenever they’ve brought up issues either to bosses or HR, it’s acknowledged, but it’s also advised to try and stick it out. “This is the new normal.”

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