Cindy Gallop: ‘Asia is treated as dumping ground for sexual predators’

As Mumbrella Asia continues its examination of sexual harassment across the region’s media and marketing scene, prominent ad land figure Cindy Gallop speaks to Eleanor Dickinson about why it’s time to start naming and shaming the agencies and perpetrators who have “destroyed the dreams and ambitions” of thousands of women

For the last month, readers of Mumbrella Asia have been given a glimpse into some of the harassment experienced by women working in Asia’s media and marketing scene.

Following ad land diversity campaigner Cindy Gallop’s rallying cry to expose the scale of the issue within agencies, this site has published four women’s personal but anonymous stories of sexual harassment. The geography in those stories ranged from Singapore to India, so it’s possible that if there is a negative industry culture it extends beyond any one specific place in Asia.

In the following question and answer session, Gallop talks about how deep she feels the problem runs, why it has never been properly addressed and what needs to happen next in order for the industry as a whole to move forwards.

Cindy Gallop

Mumbrella Asia has for some time now been trying to uncover how deep harassment in Asia’s media and marketing goes. One of the recurring themes we are finding is a reluctance of women to go public with their experiences because they fear being fired and blacklisted by other companies. 

“From my experience, growing up in Asia and being half-Chinese, it’s not a question of culture, but about the power play – but this is more entrenched in Asian culture. The men doing the harassing are the gatekeepers to jobs, pay rises, promotions, awards and ambitions. This isn’t just the top of the chain; there are men at every level blocking women and that’s the inhibiting force in Asia.

“Even if it’s just your account supervisor that’s harassing you, he can ensure that you never progress and are managed out of the company. But from my observation of travelling around Asia, I am seeing that women are fed up with their place in society and not willing to put up with it anymore – especially in Japan, where the culture keeps the women down.

“People are afraid of being the whistleblower and what that will do for their reputation, their employability and non-disclosure orders. I want to actively applaud whistleblowers as the true heroes and heroines of our industry – like Susan Fowler [the sexual harassment whistleblower] of Uber.

‘Heroine’ – Susan Fowler, formerly of Uber

“I am also calling on companies, brands and agency leaders to publicly state they will interview and hire sexual harassment whistleblowers. If agencies have values, integrity and want to do the right thing, they should be falling over-themselves to hire these people doing the right thing. Michael Roth and Yannick Bollore have so far shared this with their employees.

“Finally, you can break your NDAs, as Zelda Perkins did with the Weinstein Company. If you break an NDA about an appalling story, there is no way that company can come after you legally without looking absolutely dreadful. And also, while you signed an NDA your husband didn’t, your family didn’t and your friends didn’t.”

Another theme that has appeared frequently is that men accused of harassment are often not even fired, but redeployed to another market. Does that proximity further discourage victims from coming forward?

“Well because of the NDAs in the industry, if a harasser is terminated from an agency, nobody will no why. He can spin it any way he wants. If he is a well-know creative, he will be snapped up again. And this culture of silence means men will go on to harass and rape again and again. 

“The sexual harassment I’m hearing about spreads from appalling sexual comments to molestation and all the way to violent sexual assault and rape. And the men who have raped again and again have never been brought to justice. This culture of silence enables that to keep happening.

“Also the old acronym FILTH – fail in London, try Hong Kong – still operates. These men get shipped to Asia, which is still seen as a dumping ground. This makes people even more reluctant to speak out because they see their harasser being celebrated and given accolades as they are moved on. I do also see it as appalling that Asia is regarded as a dumping ground for this trash.”

There is to be a lot of talk in Asia about white men being the main perpetrators of this harassment, especially against junior Asian females. Do you think that assessment is accurate or too simplistic?

“This is a power play, and a Caucasian sexual harasser in Asia is a kid in a candy store. I am also appalled by stories of the HR departments who are a disgrace to their professions – zero help, zero support. Sometimes it is women who are so culturally brainwashed that they are completely unsupportive to other women. Meanwhile the men are completely unsupportive of the trauma it causes to women in a professional context.

“I knew a young, pretty Asian female who relocated from the US and was appallingly sexually harassed by her boss, and went to HR – who did nothing. I encouraged her to go back, but she was having so much trouble coming to terms with what had happened to her – so traumatised – she was struggling to speak about it. In this part of the world, you are not as encouraged to self-express as you are in other parts of the world, and you are just forced to deal with the trauma.”

Is part of the problem that women sometimes don’t realise the gravity of what happened to them – when alcohol is involved at functions, it’s sometimes referred to as a ‘grey area’ by those protecting the status quo?

“There is no ‘grey area’. But then when people ask me what sexism I encountered going up through the ranks in advertising and I say: ‘I honestly cannot tell you that because a fish does not know what water is’. I can look back at London in the late 1980 and say ‘fuck that was appalling’, but we are culturally brainwashed into believing a certain behaviour is OK.

“Historically, I have been saying that diversity is the single biggest issue our industry faces. It’s not. Sexual harassment is for several reasons – not all of which are obvious. Harassment actively prevents gender equality, diversity and inclusion. It prevents women from ever getting into power and leadership. When you make sexual comments to us in a professional setting, you instantly dehumanise us, strip us of all professional credibility, reduce us to a sexual object, ensure our male colleagues never look at us in the same way again and you destroy our careers.”

“That’s one way harassment managed us out of industries. Another is when you get women fired for rejecting your advances. A depressing and recurring motif I get in my emails from women is ‘I left the industry’. Our industry has haemorrhaged vast amounts of talented women.

“This is affecting business because our very reason for existing is to sell products. Our primary consumer target audience is women, who are the primary purchasers of everything. We are charged with providing advertising and communication that is empathetic and respectful of women, but sexual harassment is actively preventing us from doing our best work for clients. No wonder women around the world say advertising is not relevant to them.

“Finally, without women in positions of leadership and power, no wonder our industry has spectacularly failed to reinvent itself in the last 20 years. It’s on a downward trajectory and no wonder, because there is no fresh thinking, no innovation and no female talent in leadership and positions of power.”

When you were in leadership, did you ever have to discipline or fire anyone for sexual harassment?

“During my time at BBH in the 1980s and 1990s, I was very lucky nothing happened to me. And many of the women, who were sexually harassed at other agencies, said how refreshing it was to have arrived at BBH in Singapore when I was running it. There was none of that going on. But there is now.

“But when I was running BBH New York, there was one man who interviewed very well. I hired him to run a big piece of business and he arrived at the agency and got off on the wrong foot on day one. He wasn’t sexually harassing, but was being highly inappropriate in various ways and I fired him four weeks later.”

You have been a driving force in the drive to end sexual harassment and promote inclusion in agencies for some time. Are any of the holding companies going to pay you to consult for them in this area?

“No. Earlier this year, Adweek very kindly gave me one of their Disrupter of the Year awards. Katie Richards from Adweek asked me how I felt I had disrupted our industry and I said: ‘I haven’t. I have spectacularly failed because nothing is changing. And nothing of what I do is showing up in my bank account.’ I say that not out of self-interest, although I would like it to show up in my account. I say it because it is emblematic of our industry on a bigger scale. The industry does not put its money where its mouth is.

“There’s that famous Bill Bernbach quote: ‘A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money. Our industry claims to spout the values of equality, diversity and inclusion and will not pay to implement them. I have lots of ideas on how to solve this but nobody is paying me to do so. But if you want to be the agency or holding company of the future, you would pay to do so.”

Cindy at the 3% Conference – “The industry does not put its money where its mouth is.”

Some men I’ve spoken to are now saying they’re too scared to say anything to women for fear of being accused of harassment. Are they justified in that fear?

“What a load of absolute fucking bollocks. A man in the industry recently said to me that men are scared of appearing on ‘Cindy’s List’ and that anyone could find themselves on it. I bit his head off because the sheer scale of human misery I’m looking at in my inbox from all around the world, and not a false accusation in them – quite the opposite. How dare these men pronounce on it; they have no idea what women have been going through for decades.

“This is why we need to break these stories: these men, these names and companies and client brands attached, so the men understand the problem is them.”

Are you pleased with how your campaign has gone so far since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke?

“No. This is 30 years too late. In the meantime, all around the world, millions of women have had their dreams and ambitions destroyed. There is nothing good about what we’re looking at right now. Until we run those stories all around the world, when agencies and names are named, that will open the floodgates.”

Cindy Gallop is asking women and men in Asia who’ve experienced and observed sexual harassment to please email cindy@ifwerantheworld.com with names, agencies, holding companies and brands. If you also wish to share your story with Mumbrella Asia, contact the editor Eleanor Dickinson at eleanor@mumbrella.asia 


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