‘It shifts the power dynamic’: Faced with harassment, women are leaving agencies to go freelance
For Yulia Laricheva, the path to freelancing began with harassment.
After an incident in her boss’s office — she asked to attend a commercial shoot; her boss replied that she could only go if she shared a bed with him — Laricheva, freelance creative director and founder of creative agency Dream Nation Love immediately applied for other jobs that evening, secured a new one and left that agency.
“He was half-joking,” said Laricheva of the moment with her boss. “It was like, ‘How far can I go? What will she say?’ I responded ‘Haha, only if you sleep under it.’ I was able to deflect it very quickly, but I still walked out of the office in complete shock.”
The next gig Laricheva took was what she calls “an escape job.” Ultimately, she left that agency seeking a new challenge and a more creative environment.
The move from being full-time at an agency to freelance work wasn’t simply a result of harassment but that was one of the factors in Laricheva’s decision. Laricheva isn’t alone. “It’s become the kind of run-of-the-mill story,” said Stephanie Olson, founder of freelance creative marketplace We Are Rosie, which was formed in 2018 and now has roughly 2,000 members. “Sexual harassment, gender discrimination, age, race, general intolerance for all these groups of marginalized people. It’s a huge part of why I started this company. I had my own experience. It’s so commonplace that you’re not even surprised.”
For women who’ve dealt with harassment, opting out of agencies to freelance is an effort to have more control of their own environment, get out of unmanageable situations fast and feel safer while still pursuing a career in advertising. And with the rise of project work rather that AOR assignments, agencies need freelancers more than ever to help them staff up and staff down as those projects come in.
“[Going freelance] shifts the power dynamic, to a certain extent,” said Olson. “With freelancers, power rests with the freelancer. They get to choose what they work on. They can decide who they want to work with and what projects they want to take on. They have that level of autonomy, and with that comes psychological security.”
Some women are leaving agencies to go freelance to gain that security and control. One in two women say they’ve been harassed at agencies, according to Digiday Research conducted this past January, which found that 49% of women have dealt with workplace harassment and that 53% of that harassment was sexual harassment. While it’s unclear if women freelance more than men in general, Olson estimates that roughly 75% of the We Are Rosie freelancers are women.
Leaving agency life when you can’t take the culture anymore
Going freelance isn’t solely the result of harassment. For many, that’s one of a number of issues that add up, along with gender discrimination or racism or feeling like you’re underpaid or that you aren’t getting promoted due to your gender that make it feel impossible to continue full-time at an agency. For some, it’s simply the result of a recognition that their work environment in its current form is untenable, isn’t a friendly environment for women and by freelancing they can get out.
“For most of us, it’s not a conscious choice,” said Lisa Leone, creative director at Golin and former freelance creative, who notably penned a Medium post detailing the harassment she faced at agencies throughout her career prior to the mainstreaming of the #MeToo movement. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’d rather be freelance.’ In some instances, situations are so sexist or so terrible that you feel like you have no choice. When you’re freelancing, you don’t have to deal with the same amount of politics and bureaucracy.”
For freelancer Rukmi Sahay, who works in business development at agencies, freelancing came after years of dealing with various issues at agencies not only from coworkers but from clients too. Early on in her career, a franchisee owner of a fast-food chain made comments about her appearance and boasted about touching her at a golf tournament.
“What I didn’t know was that was going to be the beginning of the next 20 years of my career,” said Sahay. “In those 20 years, I have had experiences with sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and diversity — I’m an Indian and so I’m the only brown person in a room. … I got to the point where I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore,’ so I decided to go freelance. It was about wanting to be my own boss. Physically, mentally, I could no longer take [it].”
Those who leave full-time positions at agencies aren’t doing so out of a lack of ambition or drive, according to sources, but instead as the result of a culture that isn’t set up for them to succeed. In dealing with a culture like that day to day, some of that stress manifests in women who have experienced it physically, like through ulcers or fibromyalgia, according to sources, and that can make it hard for them to stay in those situations.
“Women are feeling that they can’t achieve their ambitions and get to where they want to be within the existing agency system,” said Cindy Gallop, industry activist. “While a number of those women are extremely ambitious and thirst as much as men do for the promotions and the awards and the big paycheck from the corner office, they see their path to those completely stymied by white male domination. So they want to be in charge of their own destiny.”
Freelancing is more available now
The ability to leave agencies has always been available to people who need to leave, but the rise of project work and the de-stigmatization of working for yourself has made it easier for people to do so now. According to a recent survey by The Creative Group, 62% of the employers reportedly plan to increase their use of freelancers this year, and over the course of the next three years 37% of creative teams believe they will tap freelancers to help with their workload.
“It’s way more robust now than it ever used to be,” said Nancy Hill, consultant and founder of The Agency Sherpa. “The stigma has gone away. It used to be that there was a belief that if you were freelance, it was because you couldn’t get a job. Now, freelancing is much more acceptable and for a lot of people, it’s a better way to be able to control your own time and control which environments you put yourself into and don’t put yourself into.”
“The industry has become quite project-based, so there’s opportunities to move around,” said Simon Fenwick, 4A’s evp of talent, equity and inclusion, adding that the organization has seen an uptick in freelancers in recent years but that agencies need to take a hard line on harassment and make sure their environments are inclusive. “What’s disappointing is that these victims — women and men, frankly — still don’t feel comfortable coming forward.”
That being said, agency sources believe that change is happening as agencies are now more buttoned-up not only from the fear of fallout from being called out for a toxic work environment but many agencies are truly looking to improve their culture by appointing more women to leadership roles or tapping consulting firms. It helps that some clients, like HP, are asking agencies to make sure the teams they hire are diverse.
“Progress is never as fast as you want,” said Caroline Dettman, co-founder of consultancy Have Her Back. “Female creatives have had it and are opting out of agencies. They’re not opting out of what they want to do. They’re doing it on their own. That really hurts agencies because the majority of ideas that agencies are putting out to the world do not have a strong female point of view.”
Agencies need to take a look at the culture within
Improving agency culture overall is key. Freelancing certainly isn’t without its own issues — the hustle, lack of stability, need to pay for health insurance and other benefits out of pocket as well as the pay disparity with their male counterparts and more can be taxing for those who do it.
“The flip side is no one can guarantee constant freelance,” said Leone. “That freedom and empowerment that comes with not being subject to all of that is compromised by the anxiety of not being able to pay your bills if you don’t get gigs.”
Not only that, but freelancing doesn’t automatically mean women won’t face harassment, gender discrimination, pay inequality, racism or any of the myriad cultural issues at agencies. Agencies, however, tend to be more respectful of freelancers, more mindful of their time and more considerate of their ideas, according to Leone.
“The industry needs to take a really hard look at itself,” said Fenwick. “We need to increase diversity of all types at all levels. We need ally networks within agencies. We as an industry and as a country need to make women and men who’ve gone through these situations feel safe [coming forward].”
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