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Bullying: the industry must face up to endemic problem

Bullying within the ad industry is endemic, a situation, some argue, compounded by a “soft” management style. So will the introspection brought about by Covid instil less tolerance of bad behaviour or leave people more vulnerable to it?

By Brittaney Kiefer

It was the day of the big pitch and tensions were running high in the room. The client was due to arrive at any moment. One of the agency’s employees stood at a laptop, making last-minute changes to their presentation. But it was taking longer than expected and her boss noticed.

“How long does it take someone to download a deck? What kind of moron can’t get this done?” the boss said, loud enough for the group to hear.

The woman, exposed in front of the screen, knew that the “moron” her boss referred to meant her.

For months, moments like this one had been accumulating – public outbursts directed at her, barrages of harshly worded emails late at night. It slowly chipped away at her confidence, and at weekends she was brought to tears as she anticipated another week working under her boss.

“I thought I was failing,” the woman tells Campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Everyone around me would say: ‘That person is just very tricky, it’s not personal.’ But when you’re the punch bag for that person, it does feel personal. You’re already treading on eggshells, and then you’re like, oh god, the eggshells have been broken, and I don’t know how to put them together.”

Later, when her mental health declined enough for her to seek counselling, a psychologist helped her understand what was happening: she was being bullied at work.

People often expect bullies to resemble the menacing figures they remember from the school playground or from books and films: Draco Malfoy taunting Harry Potter in the classroom, the Plastics in Mean Girls saying: “You can’t sit with us.” But in many cases, as the woman above explains, workplace bullying can be covert, insidious and hard to identify.

Sue Higgs (pictured, above), a creative director who wrote a recent Campaign column about being bullied out of her job earlier in her career, says of her experience: “I had no idea I was being bullied. For so long you think it is your fault, it must be me.”

After Higgs told her story in June, she was surprised by the outpouring of responses from other people working in advertising who had been bullied, too. The feedback cemented her belief that bullying in the industry “is rife and endemic and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. It’s the great unspoken.”

The impact of Covid and remote working

Now, with the industry under mounting pressure because of Covid-19, the switch to remote working and an economic recession, Higgs and others are concerned that the problem of bullying could be swept under the carpet, or even take new forms. Yet for some, lockdown and recent movements such as Black Lives Matter have also prompted a period of reflection, opening up a chance to reset workplace culture.

As Higgs says: “The Covid-19 confinement has encouraged a lot of introspection, and with the Black Lives Matter protests and all the inequalities and injustices being exposed round the world right now, I felt inspired to call out this unacceptable behaviour that still goes on unquestioned in many places of work… We could be using this as an opportunity to eradicate a toxic behaviour that has long been ingrained in the DNA of our industry.”

The extent of bullying in the ad industry is difficult to pin down, partly because it can often go undetected or unreported. In serious cases, there can be a legal settlement where a person who has been bullied agrees to sign a non-disclosure agreement, as part of a compensation package, which means no-one gets to hear about what happened.

While there are no recent figures on bullying at agencies specifically, in the UK overall, more than one-third of employees reported being bullied in the workplace in the past three years, according to a 2020 survey by employment law specialists Kew Law.

A January study from the CIPD, the professional body for human resources, found that a quarter of employees (24%) think challenging issues such as bullying and harassment are ignored or remain unaddressed in their organisations, despite movements such as #MeToo.

While this research shows bullying is a UK-wide problem, advertising leaders such as Higgs believe there are particular factors in the industry that can enable or exacerbate bullying and toxic work environments.

For example, agencies, like some other creative businesses, often have a “less structured, soft” style of management, Higgs says, which means employees “have to work out a lot of stuff by yourself” and may be left unsupported in difficult situations.

Christina Clark, founder and chief executive of Workculturati, a consultancy specialising in workplace culture, explains how soft management styles can allow problems to go unchecked. “Usually it means leaders are a bit hands off in terms of the way they’re communicating. Often [employees] are left to figure things out on their own and be a self-starter. If you’re not a self-starter type, it’s harder to figure out how to be in this context,” she says.

Meanwhile, many aspects of advertising jobs, such as client procurement, media trading and short deadlines, are transactional and high pressure, which could create tense environments that are breeding grounds for bullying behaviour.

In May, VoxComm, a global coalition of agency trade bodies including the IPA in the UK, came out against clients who were bullying their agencies and suggested such bad practices were worsening because of the financial squeeze that has been caused by the coronavirus crisis.

“These companies bully agencies into longer payment terms or just flagrantly flout contractual payment terms,” VoxComm said. “The unintended consequences mean agencies in turn struggle to meet payroll – often 75% of their costs. Then have to delay paying their freelancers and subcontractors (who have been hired to work directly for these clients).”

“The mindset is so alpha”

But a systemic problem with bullying in advertising goes back further than this year’s crisis. Historically, “the mindset is so alpha in this industry”, Higgs says.

Vicki Maguire, chief creative officer of Havas London, agrees: “The language that is rife in our industry is very combative and toxically male. We talk about ‘war rooms’ and ‘pitch battles’, or we’re ‘chief’ creative officers. We have historically and systemically celebrated behaviours that put the win above everything else.”

There is a common misperception that workplace bullies are typically powerful men, but Maguire counters this, saying bullying behaviour can come from both men and women.

The woman who wishes to remain anonymous was bullied by another woman, and she observes that her boss “made her way through a toxically male-dominated industry” so perhaps modelled a more aggressive form of leadership that she would have seen as crucial to success.

“HR had a huge dossier of complaints about him, but they told me they could do nothing because he was too senior and had won awards”

Her time working under that boss highlighted that at some agencies, “there is too often importance placed on the results that someone can bring without saying how they do it. If they consistently bring good results, then people turn a blind eye to how they behave and the bad stuff,” she tells Campaign.

That observation chimes with the experience of Higgs, who wrote about the senior male leader who bullied her: “HR had a huge dossier of complaints about him, but they told me they could do nothing because he was too senior and had won awards.”

Clark explains: “Bullies would usually be in a position of power – maybe the client or the person who wins awards or brings in business. Sometimes organisations can be built around these people, which would enable a culture that’s unhealthy and toxic.”

Maguire says that this has often been the case in the ad industry, which has long “celebrated the individual and not the collective. If you were in creative departments, you got promoted because of the work, not because of your people skills. There are a lot of people at every single level in this industry who will know somebody who is an arsehole – male or female – but has risen because they deliver.”

The anonymous woman describes an environment at her former agency that was “all-consuming”, where employees’ “personal and professional lives blurred quite consistently”. She started working there when the business was undergoing change and “there was a significant amount of stress put on leadership. When you’re working directly into that, you can definitely receive the stress… It felt like if you brought anything other than your game face, you were screwed.”

This was a few years ago, but the woman’s description of a business in flux, with demands overwhelming employees’ time and blurring boundaries between the professional and the personal, might sound familiar to many people working during the Covid-19 crisis.

“People are scared for their jobs”

The pressure that companies are facing now during a time of great upheaval could create the perfect storm for bullying, some industry leaders caution.

“Covid is placing a large amount of stress on people who might be in positions of power, so perhaps a person with bullying tendencies might bully more,” Lorraine Jennings, director of wellbeing services and culture change at Nabs, the advertising charity, says.

Higgs warns: “People are scared for their jobs. In a way, it’s become, ‘I’ll put up with whatever I need to put up with because I need to pay my rent’ – so bad behaviour may not be kept in check.”

Nabs, which focuses on improving the well-being of advertising and media professionals, operates an advice line that offers guidance on issues such as anxiety and stress, discrimination, bereavement, bullying and harassment.

This year, Jennings says the advice line has received many calls from employees facing redundancy or financial hardship. There has not been a surge in those seeking help with bullying but “it’s definitely happening”, she says.

Jennings is concerned that recent instances of bullying may be going unreported and undetected, because “there are fewer witnesses with people working largely from home, rather than being in an office where they’ll have colleagues around”.

Just as the rise of social media platforms left schoolchildren open to cyberbullying, so remote working could create “different opportunities for bullies and harassers” in the workplace, she adds.

It could also compound the feeling of isolation that is described by many people who have experienced bullying. “In the office, if something happened you could say to a colleague, ‘Can we go for a quick chat?’ to get help or clarify things. But now, your Zoom meeting ends and you’re sitting in your room going, ‘Right, what do I do with that?’” Higgs says.

Greater openness

Yet the transitionary period brought on by Covid might also help to break down barriers that may have prevented people from speaking out against bullying. The anonymous former agency employee says home-working could inspire more openness and empathy among leaders and colleagues.

“People’s personal and professional lives are crossing over in a way that could be good. By having insight into people’s lives through a Zoom lens, you see they have a life outside of here, maybe a family or a dog or a sick parent or building work. It can give someone greater context and help ground a person,” she adds.

As Maguire says: “Throughout Covid there isn’t any part of our lives – working or personal – that we haven’t put under the microscope to work out what really makes us happy. I’m hoping a lot of people will come back with a clean slate.”

Even before the tumultuous events of 2020, there were winds of change starting to shift workplace cultures. The #MeToo movement exposed endemic sexual harassment in society, and the subsequent #TimeTo initiative has put the spotlight on harassment within the ad and marketing industries. Such campaigns have helped encourage more openness, by empowering employees to speak up about issues and putting the onus on employers to stop tolerating bad behaviour, Jennings says.

“I would have liked the agency to have said: ‘We don’t stand for bullying here. You won’t be working if you behave like that’”

“Since #MeToo, people are speaking up now and demanding more of their organisations and the industry. We are seeing more organisations not standing for leaders who aren’t aligned with their values,” she explains. “I’ve seen people leaving [businesses] more openly when there is a problem. Where it was more hush-hush before, it’s not always that way now – there’s certainly a before and after.”

Charlotte Schreurs, an account director at content marketing shop SevenC3, has noted this “before and after” in her own professional life. She says that at a previous agency she was bullied by a colleague who was senior to her, but when she considered reporting him, “everyone said don’t do it, he’s a powerful man, you’ll just lose your job”.

After a client and a few colleagues pointed out to her that the director’s behaviour was inappropriate, she decided to make a formal complaint to her employer. The man was subsequently let go without an explanation to the rest of the company, and given a leaving party to celebrate his years of service.

“I would have liked the agency to have said: ‘We don’t stand for bullying here. You won’t be working if you behave like that,’” Schreurs says.

Later, in a role at another company, she encountered bullying from an executive again, but since her previous experience she was able to recognise the behaviour and felt empowered to report it immediately to her manager. “I don’t accept being treated badly any more,” she says. “I wish I had known before that, if you are in a decent agency, you won’t lose your job for saying something and you should say something.”

More broadly, Clark says that workplaces have begun to see “a big shift towards humble leadership”. This change has been led by companies such as Patagonia, which ties factors such as sustainability and employee wellbeing to its business success.

“People are realising that servant leadership is actually good for the bottom line. Alpha culture is bad for the bottom line, because people leave and they go off to other things,” Clark says.

In recent years, some ad agencies have joined this wider chorus calling for a greater focus on employee wellbeing in the workplace. Most businesses in the industry have come to recognise that this is crucial to attracting and retaining talent, Maguire says, adding that when she joined Havas in January, she was partly drawn to the agency by the fact that it is a B Corporation and emphasises issues such as diversity and inclusion.

But if this shift is to continue after the Covid crisis, a few things in adland will have to change. For one, “even in cultures of soft management, it’s very important to design a culture of psychological safety and confidence”, Clark says.

In practice, this would mean that business leaders “create atmospheres where it’s OK to speak up regardless of your rank or tenure”, she adds. “There has to be a zero-tolerance atmosphere for micro-aggressions and managers need to encourage other people in the organisation to not cover up bad behaviour.”

The role of HR must change

One crucial factor in tackling bullying will be improving the HR function, Clark and others say. Schreurs recalls that when she reported the instances of bullying to her former agency’s HR department, they dissuaded her from talking about the problem with others or bringing her case to an employment tribunal, which hears claims from people who think an employer has treated them unfairly. “At that stage I thought HR was looking after me, but the agency was only looking after themselves,” Schreurs says.

This is a common refrain among people who have experienced workplace bullying: many report feeling that there was no-one they could turn to internally for help, or if they did raise the problem, it would not be properly addressed. The anonymous woman recalls being afraid that if she reported the bullying to another employee or HR, it would get back to her boss. “It felt like all of my potential support boats were being cut off at all times,” she says.

Clark suggests that businesses could reform their HR departments by making them more independent. “People don’t feel confident to go to HR, because it is often set up in the interest of companies. Perhaps there’s something missing that’s in the interest of employees and a way of making HR more balanced.”

“HR is key to breaking this behaviour. Their silence is complicit,” Maguire says.

Additionally, Clark advises that even in a recession, when many companies are making cuts, “there needs to be much more care taken for their employees”. This might include better management training and third-party experts to offer mental health and career development support to help people “navigate this new, potentially quite isolating, virtual world”.

For Higgs, a crucial first step in eradicating workplace bullying is to “talk about it and get the stories out”. That is why she decided to go public with her experience. For a long time, she blamed herself for what had happened: “The guy I worked for told me that anything I did was useless and I was terrible at my job. I can still get flashbacks to him and think maybe my work is bad. It’s trying to crush that voice in your head – it hasn’t left me yet. I’ve got better but there’s still that mark.”

When she told her story, the wide variety of people who recalled similar experiences proved that bullying is “indiscriminate. It can happen to all shapes, ages, genders – anyone.” She realised, finally, that she was not alone and “it’s not your fault”, she says.

Yet the numerous stories that Higgs received should also raise alarm bells at a time when the ad industry is loudly championing the importance of diversity and inclusion. After the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, Higgs says she thought, “It’s brilliant that we’re trying to invite more diversity into the industry, but I was like – and what, bully people when you get there? It’s not exactly a happy ship to come into. They’re just going to turn up and run.”

Maguire adds: “When this industry is at its worst, we don’t just turn a blind eye to [bullying] behaviour, we reward it and put it on a pedestal. When it is at its best, it’s a playground for diverse thinking and personalities. It should be this haven for all.”

In the end, like Higgs, the anonymous woman mentioned at the beginning of this piece saw no choice but to leave her job. On her last day in the role, after a period of leave and a series of meetings with HR and other managers, she returned to the office, only to be told by another colleague that her boss was “on the rampage”. She took this as a final sign to go, that she was not welcome in a place that touted itself as one of the best agencies in London.

“Part of the narrative [at the agency] was that you were dispensable – you were a cog in the machine, and if you weren’t up to it, you could just be replaced tomorrow. I felt worthless,” she says. “At work, you want to feel like you’re all in it together. You can raise a flag and someone will pick it up and say, ‘It’s OK, I see you, how can I help?’ But I was raising a flag consistently and no-one was picking it up. No-one was listening.”

You’re not alone…

A selection of the stories from the many in the industry who shared with Sue Higgs their experiences of being bullied and gave permission for them to be published. All names have been changed.

“I was bullied off an account once. When I was removed from it, nobody told me. I had been given the cold shoulder by a senior strategist on the team from the start. She had complained about working with me and nobody thought to tell me. I phoned her to confront her and her response was: ‘Catherine, go quietly, don’t make a fuss.’ I spoke to my boss who did very little. I was very down about that for a while and it damaged my confidence, self-esteem and reputation.”


“[After being bullied], I took some time out and found a new position. However, I can now see it happening to people around me – the anger all coming from a very senior man. He particularly targets a female colleague of mine and I’ve really struggled with what to do. I’ve flagged things to my manager, and colleagues have gone to HR. They get the same response: ‘That’s just the way he is’ and ‘He’s been here so long he won’t change now.’ Official complaints have been laughed out of the room and I’ve been told it’s ‘just the way it is in the real world’. What’s even more frustrating is the person he’s doing it to is fantastic at her job and he’s crushing her. It’s at the point now where I’m helping her to find a new job but I worry that as soon as she goes he’ll move on to somebody else.”


“I was also bullied at a big agency by a male creative director above me. It’s something you never forget. For me there was no other option but to quit, after six months of the abuse. I’ve tried to grow from the experience and not let it happen again.”


“I was hounded out of a client role by a freelancer that was covering a maternity role. Despite her only spending one day a week in my company, she managed to… tell me I was a disgusting person continually and that I was no good at my role. Before she arrived I had received the highest performance review, but over the space of six months I was marked as an underperformer and put on report. I complained to the department director and HR continually. HR even told me I had a grievance case, but the director threatened it would not be a smart thing to go ahead with. They broke me, destroyed my confidence and belief in myself. I dread to think what other senior people were told of me after I had gone. She even threw my resignation on the floor and banned me from speaking to people in the business. I lived in fear and still do [feel] that someone is watching me. It’s been so hard. I had to leave a job I loved. A salary I needed. A relationship I’d spent so hard creating. Cruel. I’ve never been able to share it with a soul other than my boyfriend.”


“When I finally worked up the courage to speak to a senior [woman] in the workplace about my challenges with senior male members of my team, I was told she respected those men too much to do anything and that I should try therapy.”


What to do if you are being bullied…

Acas, the independent public body that advises on workplace rights, rules and best practice, defines bullying as: “Behaviour from a person or group that’s unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable, including feeling: frightened (‘intimidated’); less respected or put down (‘degraded’); you’re made fun of and it makes you feel uncomfortable (‘humiliated’); or upset (insulted or ‘offended’)”.

By law, bullying becomes harassment when it is about any of the nine characteristics protected under the 2010 Equality Act: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation. Bullying can be difficult to prove if it does not target one of these characteristics. However, employers still have a legal duty to take reasonable care of the health and safety of employees and to take steps to protect employees from unacceptable behaviour, such as bullying, according to Shilpen Savani, a solicitor and partner at law firm Gunnercooke.

If an employee believes they are being bullied, Savani advises first raising it informally with a manager or HR. If the issue is still not resolved, an employee should refer to the company’s grievance policy (every workplace should have one) and prepare a formal complaint in writing. The employer would then be obligated to follow a formal procedure to address the grievance.

If the employee’s complaint is rejected, they have a right to appeal against the decision. If internal avenues are exhausted, a person may want to seek legal advice. Further guidance is available from Acas, and Nabs, which has a confidential advice line and offers help tailored to the ad and marketing industries.

Christina Clark, founder of Workculturati, also recommends that the person being bullied keeps a diary or log of incidents: “It is important to gather evidence to understand what happened. Once you have everything on paper, it’s important to share it with someone else you trust.”

She also urges all employees to look out for colleagues in stressful situations. “We all have a responsibility in this – it’s not about waiting to be asked to support someone.”

It is also crucial to talk to someone, whether a colleague or third party, if you are struggling at work. “These cumulative, small steps can create the energy for change and build towards empowering you to find the head space to think about an action plan,” Clark says. “There’s never a right time to speak out but those who do have given others the courage to do the same.”