Mark Ritson: Advertising’s Harvey Weinstein moment is coming

Speaking at a breakfast event hosted by DDB last week, marketing professor Mark Ritson said the advertising industry would soon have to contend with the issue of sexual harassment and assault.  

These comments come in the wake of Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal, which has since led to a number of revelations relating to the sexual misconduct of executives and actors.

Ritson anticipates that something similar could happen in advertising within the next year.

“Cindy Gallop is already asking for advertising Harvey Weinsteins to be identified and there is a list now circulating, at least in Australia, of repeat offenders,” Ritson said.

While he was not certain whether a similar list was circulating in New Zealand, he warned the local industry should also be prepared to deal with it.

To show the scale of the issue in this part of the world, he pointed to research out of Australia showing that at least 40 percent of female employees working at agencies had been sexually harassed at least once while 20 percent noted multiple instances. This no doubt played a role in 45 percent of women working at agencies feeling vulnerable “because they are women”.     

“Now, either this is a small cadre of men doing it or a lot of men doing it. Either way, it doesn’t matter and it’s going to become a big issue next year.”

In an article written prior to his arrival in New Zealand, Ritson also addressed this issue, commenting on the idea that Gallop’s call for offenders to be exposed could be considered a witch hunt.

“Gallop’s quest can only be classified as a ‘witch hunt’ if, as in the original Salem saga that inspired the term, the witches in question do not actually exist,” he said.  

“There appears to be enough evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, to suggest that we do have our unfair share of sexual harassers within advertising and marketing.”

There is currently no data available on the issue in the local market, but it be would naïve to think New Zealand isn’t struggling with the same issues.  

Power in New Zealand advertising remains disproportionately in the hands of men, with a Communications Council survey released this week showing that 63 percent of managing directors and chief executives working across the broader communications industry are men.

And to once again quote Ritson: “Marketing has a surfeit of old men who manage an army of younger women. That tells you something is wrong with the way diversity is managed and promoted within our discipline.”

As has been seen in the film and television industry in the United States, a heavily skewed power dynamic creates an environment in which some feel the right to act with impunity. They are certainly not the majority, but they do exist.  

The absence of a local scandal should not be taken as an indication that these things aren’t happening here. It took decades before anyone had the courage to stand up to Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. It was a long time before the anecdotes and whispers across the industry were confirmed by witness testimony.

The question now is whether the stories in the local market will become bigger than mutterings around lunch tables. As infuriating as it might be if this does happen, Ritson argued that we shouldn’t shy away from it.

“We have to take our Weinstein opportunity to stamp it out once and for all.”

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