Since the #MeToo movement began, the ad world has found ways to tout changing agency culture without much in the way of actual change. At least, that’s the point of view of one male creative director, who says that while overt sexism is less of a problem, there are still issues — and that in some areas, the movement has led to other problems, like men who refuse to mentor women.
In the latest edition of our Confessions series, this creative director said he believes more men still need to be held to account for their actions. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s been surprising about how you’ve observed men reacting to #MeToo?
Behind closed doors, men within the industry talk about their fear of the #MeToo movement, but then they also talk about how ridiculous it is. It feels like this was an opportunity to learn, to understand and to perhaps grow. But there’s definitely a couple of generations of men — I think this is less so of the younger generation — who get together and bitch about what’s going on. They don’t feel any sense of accountability and go to these ridiculous extremes, like suggesting that they can’t mentor women anymore. That’s one of my favorites. Like the price of entry for mentorship is you touch someone’s shoulders or speaking comfortably close to them to be able to mentor someone?
That means women lose out.
Yes. There’s not only a fear for men who don’t want to be called out for their behavior, but there’s also a slightly punishing tone. A nefarious intention behind the act of withholding mentorship, which is I suppose the more disturbing end of that. [This idea that] “if all these women are going to start pushing back against us men, then we’ll punish them by not giving them the same opportunities in education or learning as we would younger male counterparts.”
Is it only mentorship that women are losing out on?
Women lose out generally with men in power. When you’re a creative director or executive creative director, when you’re pressed for time when you’re handed a brief and you’re asked to execute against that brief the people you’re going to jibe with the most are not necessarily the people with the most interesting creative but the people with whom you have the easiest time communicating with, people with similar life experiences. It’s already a mountain to climb for young women looking to get ahead if your superiors are men and if there’s an inbuilt resistance that seems twice as unjust.
So, you’re saying men in the industry aren’t interested in change?
There was a brief moment of pause, I think about a year ago, when everything was going down all at once where men actually did almost shut up for a minute. I thought maybe this was the start of something new. [For example,] if there was an above-average attractive account girl who left the room, a guy wouldn’t turn to me and make some lurid remarks and expect me to show kind of thumbs up it in kind. I’ve never capitulated to that sort of thing. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever been as vocal as you should be in those situations to say, “That’s kind of gross.” A lot of them are clients, too.
What do you do when it’s a client who says something inappropriate?
I’m not going to call them out on it because it could be a business-losing proposition unless it’s something incredibly offensive. Rocking the boat, firing a client for objectifying a woman when she’s out of the room or holding them to account and making them uncomfortable so they don’t want to work with me anymore — I’m put in a very awkward position, but I don’t think I’ve ever pushed back.
It is a lot of clients?
I’ve definitely had one or two at every job. It’s usually passing remarks.
You want to voice an objection but it feels difficult to say something?
It’s really confusing because you feel a degree of responsibility because you don’t want to let something like this slide and you don’t want to make someone feel comfortable about it, but you’re put in such an uncomfortable position as well. It’s not even close to being analogous to what women go through. But the fascinating thing is there’s probably a subset of men who have made it feel really uncomfortable by the behaviors of boorish men. I think it’s probably a very small percentage.
What are you hoping for?
It is not a very popular opinion either in public or in private to voice the opinion either with other men or whomever that you want to see these men suffer a little bit. To be perfectly honest, I really do. I want them to lose their jobs, and I want them to be held to account. They need to have a moment of reckoning, and so many of them have not.
Have men actually changed their behavior at agencies post-#MeToo?
There has definitely been changed for the positive, most of that initiated by women. I think men are behaving themselves better in workplaces but not necessarily to the level that is needed. There is positive momentum. I don’t want to make myself sound like some revenge fantasist, but a lot of people have done a lot of shitty things and a lot of those people are still in power. I guess it’s just a testament to the dark strengths of the patriarchy that the movement hasn’t gone further. The movement hasn’t gone far enough, and I don’t think enough has changed in the wake of it. I’m disappointed that the bad actors feel no need to square things away.