The Skeletons Parade

Almost exactly one year ago I started a conversation on sexual harassment in Brazilian ad agencies that was untold of at the time. And I did it because I saw the white men in power being once again praised by their doings on a random Tumblr blog that was getting popular back then by calling them heroes and the like, while women in the indstry not only didn’t get the same accolade, but also had to deal with these same men being inappropriate towards them and silencing them at the same time.

It was an odd moment to bring up the topic of sexual harassment, although for a woman it always is. But as I wasn’t even working for agencies anymore, I had the freedom to do so, to be a voice for women who are still in the market, because I have no fear of being black listed. So I launched my own Tumblr called Liga das Heroínas (The Female Hero League), in which I anonymously published storied of sexual harassment I collected online. Here are a few examples:

  • “This one time I was called for a meeting with the CD (who was also the founder and CEO) about a project I was working on. When we left the meeting room, there was no one there and I realized it was all a trap. He tried to grab me and I had to flee. Before I finally quit, I still had to avoid other several other late ‘meetings’ alone with him”
  • “There’s this one guy where I work who hits on every girl. I would always see him hugging and touching them on sexual ways, but no one had the guts to do anything about it, just politely rejected his advances. Then one day he approached me and said: “Hey, if you weren’t a lesbian, I’d hit on you too”.
  • “Sometimes the CEO would arrive drunk and late at the agency, then he would come up to me and tell me I was his little favorite. He was married and would hit on me all the time, then he got jealous of my friendship with an art director and spread rumors we were sleeping together
  • “I used to work with social media, but decided to give it a try as a copywriter and it was awful. My boss would humiliate me in front of everyone all the time. He’d say things like: ‘You can’t wear sneakers’, ‘You watch so many tv shows you probably don’t fuck’, ‘You say I never smile, but I laugh everytime I see your work’, ‘You look way better in pictures’. Then he’d laugh out loud and would repeat it so everyone in the office would hear. The last straw was when I confronted him about it asking why he treated me this way when I was just an assistant. Then he said: ‘The creative department is hostile and sexist — get used to it’. I gave up on copywriting.”
  • “At a meeting with the Account Department Director to decide the name of the client’s intranet website and one of the endomarketing girls said she wanted to join the project. He told her to send him some nudes, so he would check if she’d fit the team. She didn’t say anything and the case was hushed up by the agency”.
  • “A former boss told me I had to work twice as hard because I wasn’t even pretty”
  • “The guys I work with take pics from under the desk when we wear skirts and share them among themselves on Whatsapp”

But the story that stroke me the most was the one about one of the biggest agencies in Brazil, Africa, selected by Adweek as one of the 10 most creative agencies in the world, a behemoth. A definite dream place to work for anyone who still doesn’t know better. They used to have a contest called Calota de Outo (“Golden Hubcap”), in which the men who worked there would decide who had the best vagina (I swear I’m not making this up) among the female staff and give her a literal golden hubcap in their annual holiday party. Here’s proof:

On top: To wrap up the year in style, Africa Agency took all of their staff to a hell of a party at the Bar Número, last Wednesday, in Jardins”. On Bottom: “[Redacted], the winner of this year’s Golden Hubcap”

I have no idea of what was their criteria — and I honestly don’t wanna know or care. All I know is that after being exposed in the media and on Liga das Heroínas Facebook page, the whole contest is officially dead and didn’t happen last year. A small, but heart warming victory for us. I’m not naive to think men there aren’t still judging women’s bodies on the sly, but at least women are now safe from this public humiliation.

This is how bad things are here, but I can’t put into words how happy I am to see this conversation I started in Brazil last year gaining momentum worldwide. As more and more women are speak up, we are making the market a dangerous place for sexists. Even though the gender debate is still far from being over, the ad industry isn’t the safe space for sexist men that it once was — and Kevin Roberts’ downfall is proof of that.

Unfortunately, it also still isn’t a safe space for women. Not even for one of the most prominent voices against discrimination in the industry, the always inspiring Cindy Gallop. She was harassed by a big shot at a dinner at a villa on Cannes, where she was for the occasion of no less than the biggest advertising event of the year. Like many of us, she laughed it off, tried not to make a fuss, but he just ignored it all and proposed sex. His sense of entitlement was so heightened, that he became angry and abusive when she obviously refused. Out of this experience, she had a selfless conclusion: “Wow, this is what virtually every young woman in the industry goes through, that men … never go through. It’s a fact of life in our industry.”

It is indeed a fact and a sad one, but we’re committed to change it. I have plenty of reasons to believe in the power of sharing our stories, because silencing, gaslighting and victim blaming used to be their biggest weapons, but when we lose the fear of using our voices to speak the truth, they lose more and more fire power. It’s time for us to take the skeletons out of the ad industry closet and parade them everywhere we can so they can’t be ignored and denied anymore — and agencies finally take measures to keep their closets clean of any kind of discrimination.