My experience as a woman in advertising, in two parts

heidi hackemer

I AM WOMAN HEAR ME ROAR

I run my own company, ride my motorcycle solo cross country, wear a lot of black leather and have a somewhat intense hair cut. Because of those things, and perhaps other things, I often get called a badass. It’s not unusual for me to hear — sometimes in jest, sometimes not — “I wouldn’t want to mess with you.”

But I have been messed with. Many times. And despite many people in my life lovingly fretting about my solo travels, I’ve never gotten messed with on the road the way that I have in my career.

At one agency we had gone out for team drinks which included a senior member of management, who got very drunk. During the course of the night he forcefully grabbed my ass and my hair, whipping my face around to him because I had looked away from him and he wanted to see my eyes.

At another agency I walked into a meeting with just our senior client and my boss. My boss pointed out to the client that “Heidi is wearing stripper shoes today” which sparked a conversation about my “sexy” legs and what I do with them.

I’ve had more than one boss proposition me inappropriately, causing a panic about how to respond so that I can still feel normal at work tomorrow but not piss him off. Of course there’s the steady drumbeat of inappropriate looks, jokes, monikers that seems to follow just about any woman through her career. And, if you’re like me and dated people that you’ve worked with, there is that whispery commentary that swirls as well. Awesome.

Yet, despite all of this, I never stood up for myself. I didn’t want to be “that girl” — the girl that couldn’t hang with the boys or handle some joking or be cool. I figured it wasn’t happening to anyone else and I would be seen as paranoid or hysterical. So when these things happened, I shrugged them off and powered on.

Until…

A few years back I had been dating a guy (yes, he works in the industry) and there had been months of extreme verbal abuse and emotional manipulation (side note: I empathize now with abused women stay with men; it’s fucked up but you think the apologies are real and he will change).

He promised he could control his anger and that he would never lay a hand on me, but one afternoon I found myself in my apartment, being held down by my throat as he shouted at me that I was “lucky” that he “wasn’t going to beat the shit out of (me) today.” I got an arm loose and hit his head multiple times as hard as could, but he was so strong. The hits meant nothing. The attack ended when he decided, not because I had any power to stop it. As he tore out of my apartment, he promised me that “someday, mark my words, I AM going to beat the shit out of you, just you wait.”

I’m not writing any of this as a way to vent my anger or as an act of catharsis. Fortunately, I have a loving web of people around me who took care of me and helped me emerge. Those experiences, the attack… they all piss me off, but they don’t have power over me anymore.

I’m writing this because I want women out there, especially young women, to know that when this stuff happens to you, you are not alone. This happens. Every day. Even to the badasses. Your feelings and experiences and confusion and anger are real.

After the attack, I started boxing. I wanted to feel in control again and know how to really throw a punch. In the locker room one morning, a friend asked me why I took up the sport. Instead of the normal “I want to get in really good shape” line, I told the truth. I told the ladies about the attack, how I felt powerless, I wanted to feel strong again, feel like me.

And one by one, every woman told her story. Of an attack, or some guy holding back her career, inappropriate comments and yes, rape… situation upon situations where a man or men treated her horribly. And then it hit me: I’m not alone.

As I started being more open about my experiences with more women, I realized that every woman has stories. Every single one of my “power” girlfriends that younger women look at with awe — women who are bona fide badasses — have been abused in some way. We are not paranoid. We are not hysterical.

Rather we live in a society where harassment, violence, aggression and the subjugation of women is almost mundanely woven in the the everyday experience.

What. the. Fuck.

I’m fed up. I’m fed up with hearing these stories, seeing women in pain and seeing talent held back. And as a part of being fed up I’m going to be open about what happened to me. I’m going to support those that tell their stories and those who call out the shitheads that still think treating women anyway less than equal is okay. I’m going to work on causes and with orgs that advance the role of women in society. I’m going to run a company that supports a diverse workforce in all forms (that is run by a team of five badass women). And together we’re going to make a change.

But I don’t think that’s enough.

BOYS WILL BE BOYS

I often talk about how my four nieces motivate me to live a big life and make a positive dent in the world around me. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my four nephews.

Over the past few years, my company has been asked to work with clients such as Nike, Harry’s and Bonobos to study men and masculinity today. After lots of global quantitative, qualitative and cultural research, we’ve realized something quite simple: it’s a weird time to be a guy, especially a white one.

Their world is turning upside down. Many of the traditional codes of masculinity get them in trouble. They are having a hard time navigating how to be, how to relate to the world, how to relate to women, how to even think.

Let’s make one thing quite clear: I have zero tolerance for any guy that is clinging onto and continuing to perpetuate the patriarchy and/or white supremacy.

However, there are a lot of guys that want be on the right side of this issue.

Here’s the problem: if you’re a good guy with good intentions, there aren’t a lot of models or understanding of how to do better.

When these guys look out into the world, they hear the roar of how men are doing it wrong, but they don’t see a lot of examples of how to do it right. As a result, they feel lost.

I don’t want my nephews to feel lost.

We have this saying: boys will be boys. We act as if bad behavior towards women is inevitable, baked into the male psyche. I think that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit because I’ve been on the receiving end of positive, supportive behavior from many powerful men, men who have undoubtedly benefited from this biased, messed up, lopsided system that is primed to put them in positions of power, but who didn’t use that as permission to lose their integrity.

So, in the spirit of working together to solve this, I offer up a list of tips of how guys can be on the right side of this situation, modeled through the anecdotes of the men, not boys, who have supported me and my career. A few lessons below:

  • In the very beginning of my career, when I was a hack copywriter, I wasn’t quite gelling with my creative partner at the time. I set up a meeting with Christoph Becker, the ECD and Chairman of FCB, to talk about this. I was very, very nervous to “complain” and, in the first few minutes, couldn’t get the words out. He waited patiently and when I finally spit it out, he let out a huge sigh of relief. “Heidi, I thought you were going to tell me that someone had harassed you or come on to you or worse. That would have been a problem. This? This is not a problem.” In that moment I knew that I was protected at the highest level and if I ever did run into a problem, I had an ally that I could turn to.
  • I went through a pretty rough divorce while at FCB and the company’s open office plans were not friendly to that situation. Luke Bailey made his office available to me when I needed a moment, understanding that I was not a hysterical girl but a human that was going through a tough moment in my life.
  • At Fallon London, Ben Cyzer and I had some male clients who weren’t too keen on interacting with a women. Ben wouldn’t accept that and made sure I had a voice on the account. Chris Willingham regularly held a seat for me at the conference table, not on the chairs that ringed the outside.
  • Calle Sjoenell and I worked together super closely at BBH. We sat next to each other, traveled together, late nights, huge celebrations, huge fights, huge hugs to make up after the huge fights. Although he was the big shot ECD, he treated me with respect and as an essential partner and as a friend. It was never weird. It just was.
  • Although I don’t know the particulars of my colleagues’ salaries, Greg Andersen gave me a salary at BBH that, thanks to Heather LeFevre’s annual planner’s survey, I suspect was on par with the money that the guys doing the same work as I was were getting paid.
  • I sat next to Nigel Bogle at a company dinner, and instead of spending the hour or so flirting with a young female employee, he engaged me in an incredibly human conversation, ranging from business to life to philosophy. I felt seen.
  • While at Anomaly, Jason Musante and I used to joke about funny things, like how I have a ridiculous habit of crying while watching movies on planes and not about things like my body or sexual prowess.
  • Jonny Bauer at Droga offered up his belief and support when he heard, through the grapevine, about the way a colleague had been inappropriate with me in a past job. Instead of getting lost in industry rumors, he asked me about my perspective and listened.
  • Johnny Vulkan has offered countless hours of conversation as I’ve started W&W. He never treated my ideas as a whim or ridiculous or crazy girl shit — rather he’s been a hugely supportive fellow-founder that loves to dig in and discuss.
  • Mamma Sjoenell did a good job: A few months back, when I needed an agency with creative firepower to bring to life the White House’s United State of Women Summit, Pelle Sjoenell jumped right in, offering up the resources of BBH LA and his tireless belief that men need to be a part of the positive conversation and solution.

If we want change, if we want young men to learn better ways of working and being, we of course must call out the inexcusable (yes I’m looking at you Kevin Roberts and Gustavo Martinez). But we must also engage in solutions, one being acknowledging models and examples of behavior of men who treat women equally.

I know a lot of guys who are doing this quietly as part of their everyday way of way of working. I’m asking for more — guys, we need manbassadors. As it goes with real estate and culture, the gays are one step ahead of you with voices like William Charnock and Brad Jakeman vocally advocating for treating women equally. If we really want to move into an new era, it’s time for more guys to publicly get on board and to consciously create positive viruses within their culture, modeling new norms within their conversations and teachings and codes.

And then maybe, just maybe, my nieces AND my nephews can live in a society that is actually reflective and respectful of the players in it, where the women can also go out and kick ass and the men are right there beside them, encouraging and partnering at every step.

That is the world that I hope for. And we’ll only get there if we do this together.

heidi hackemer

Written by

riding. running. living.

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