Among the many revelations of the Me Too era, one glaring fact is that many human resources departments across the country suck at dealing with sexual harassment: Only when the evidence is overwhelming, grotesque, and about to be published in the press, do things seem to change.
Just ask the women of advertising: "In the four years that I've been in this industry, something has happened to me at every place I've ever worked at," says one 25-year-old art director who asked that I not use her name. "The people that assault or harass people in our industry are usually in higher positions of power and they use girls like me as prey. If we come forward, our careers will be over. There’s nowhere to go to report it.”
At least, nowhere until now, the art director adds. Enter Diet Madison Avenue, a private Instagram account run by an anonymous collective of advertising industry insiders that publishes accounts of sexual harassment it receives, including, at times, the names of alleged perpetrators and those accused of protecting them. Its bio states its purpose: “Exposing sexual harassment & discrimination in ad agencies since Oct 2017, cuz HR won’t.”
If this reminds you of the infamous Shitty Media Men List, that’s because the mission is very similar. But that endeavor was controversial mainly because of its total lawlessness: a Google spreadsheet where anyone could add anything to the list, and anyone who got the link got to see the full collection of names and allegations, which ranged from sexist comments to violent assaults. What Diet Madison Avenue is doing is taking that same idea, and improving it by adding some safeguards. The Instagram account, which now has 18,000 followers and counting, was started by five female friends who all work in advertising, and has since grown to 17 people (including both men and women). They think of themselves as a “collective,” and maintain that they vet every report they get before publishing an alleged perpetrator’s name. According to a spokesperson who spoke with me over Instagram Messenger, they’re working with equal opportunity law experts, lawyers, PhD students, and researchers to inform their investigation processes and to provide support for victims who message them their stories.
Diet Madison Avenue has also been accused of being a “slippery slope” and “crude” by people in the industry, who feel their aims are good but their tactics risk a “witch hunt.” But their process seems to be working so far: The Shitty Media Men list only existed for twelve hours before being deleted; Diet Madison Avenue has made it four months. All 17 people behind the account remain anonymous, despite rabid speculation.
“The advertising industry has an infamous history of protecting the abusers and marginalizing the victims. An entire TV show was made about it,” they say, in a statement responding to a list of my questions. “We wish a group like ours didn’t have to exist, we hope for the day when we don’t have to. But we exist because agencies have not addressed this prevalent problem in our industry.”
According to the person I spoke with over Instagram messenger, the way it works is someone will DM Diet Madison Avenue with an account of harassment, and then depending on how much they are willing to disclose (some don’t want to name anyone, many just want to talk), the group then begins their “extensive” process of vetting to verify the identity and story of the person sharing with them. (They declined to share details about the process on the record.)
The advertising industry has an infamous history of protecting the abusers and marginalizing the victims. An entire TV show was made about it.
Diet Madison Avenue
Diet Madison Avenue has so far named a number of alleged serial predators publicly, and there has indeed been a string of high-level firings, some known to be related to sexual harassment. But because the group only posts names and allegations on their Instagram Stories (which disappear after 24 hours), I couldn’t verify who exactly they have named, outside of two names I saw personally as a follower of the account.
The ephemeral nature of Diet Madison’s accusations has led to a media narrative that’s wholly focused on their pugnacious tone and anonymity: “Inside 'Diet Madison Avenue': The Anonymous Instagrammers Who Get Nasty In The Fight Against Alleged Predators” reads a headline from AdAge. They’ve been called “ad-industry vigilantes” by Fast Company, and “whistleblowers” by The Drum. Partly this coverage stems from the fact that when someone is fired, the Instagram account will add celebratory posts: When Joe Alexander, the chief creative officer at the Martin Agency was ousted in December, for example, they posted his headshot with “Bye Bye Asshole” in red letters superimposed over his face, as a traditional photo post. (Joe Alexander was the subject of multiple sexual harassment claims reported by The Wall Street Journal, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and AdWeek. He maintains that all allegations are “false.”)
And yes, the group is secretive: after I sent my questions over DM, they messaged me a day later with a Gmail account and password which would allow me to access the statement containing their responses. “We’re not naive. We have enemies,” they say, adding that all of them are working professionals, some of them parents with mortgages to pay and mouths to feed, who are risking their careers to to do this.
Nonetheless, it’s both a sign of the depressing failure of the current system, as well as an exciting sign of a shift in power, that they see no other way forward but to continue on, unapologetically. “There is often institutional pressure to push allegations under the rug — the idea being that companies with a public face don’t want sexual harassment claims to go public because the alleged harasser is often a company star,” Diet Madison Avenue says. “For us it’s not just about one man and or one firing. It’s about the industry as a whole. We want to know why known sexual predators were hired, promoted, and consistently given more and more power.”
In Alexander’s case, for example, The Martin Agency originally declined to comment on why he was fired; it was only after media attention, and chatter on whisper networks like Fishbowl and Diet Madison Avenue, that they said it openly: “The behavior that Martin's former CCO, Joe Alexander, is accused of is inexcusable. That's why the only alternative was for him to leave The Martin Agency. That decision was ours," reads an email, sent from CEO Matt Williams and President Beth Riley-Kelley to employees, obtained by AdWeek.
In some ways, Diet Madison Avenue’s tactics are really not very different than those long used by the labor movement (like the labor union’s famed inflatable rats, a tool to shame companies for some perceived crime against its workers.) “Before it wasn’t as easy without social media, but people have been naming and shaming companies as a way to push for change for a long time,” says Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center.
So, why is it that when a union of male workers sets up outside a corporate headquarters with an ugly balloon rodent and a charge of wage theft, they’re standing up for themselves, but when female workers get together to publicly address employers about protecting predators, it’s so problematic? Well, partly because of sexism. Fighting for higher wages is still much less stigmatized than a claim of sexual harassment. But also because a union isn’t an anonymous enterprise. “They say they are vetting complaints and working with lawyers, but we don’t know what the process is,” Raghu says.
At the same time, the anonymity of the collective’s members also helps victim’s trust them. “I have seen people calling them out, saying you need to show yourselves,” says a follower of the account, a woman who works in advertising who also messaged them for advice. “But those are the people who are not in these positions, where they’re dealing with harassment and saying something could get them fired. They don’t understand what the anonymity offers. They’re risking their jobs, their careers, and I really think that allows for people to actually be more transparent with them.”
Like all things #MeToo, their endeavor brings up new questions about power and who gets to wield it. Human resources is empowered by the company you work for to protect you — and to protect the company itself, of course. But who has bestowed power on Diet Madison Avenue? How far does this power go? It remains far from clear whether an anonymous Instagram account with fewer than 20,000 followers can really be enough to pressure a global industry to change. But because ad agencies tend to be hypersensitive about their reputations and they depend on a workforce sensitive to the issues they’re calling attention to right now, their power could arguably extend pretty far.
Two weeks ago, Diet Madison Avenue announced on their story that they will soon come out of the shadows, as soon as they’ve finished filing paperwork to create a legit non-profit dedicated to tackling this issue. But they’re not going to stop posting and collecting stories in the meantime. “In most cases, [for the people who reach out to us to report experiences] we are talking about sexual assault, groping, physical molestation, consistent and ongoing cases of harassment, coercion, retaliation when the victim doesn’t oblige and go along,” they say. Last Friday, they posted two new names, and put out a call for information about layoffs at the ad agency Droga5, which just laid off 5 percent of its workforce in its New York office, including some in human resources, according to AgencySpy.
More than anything else, Diet Madison Avenue is offering hope for people whose harassment experiences are of the everyday variety. Those that might not be interesting enough for a journalist to write a world-rattling expose about, or even to consult a lawyer about, but are no less unsettling and confusing. Behind the scenes of their juicy Insta story, they’re also counseling those that come to them about how to structure an email to HR, talking people through their options, and helping them figure out what they want to do with their stories.
“What they’re doing is they are actually listening,” says Megan Colleen McGlynn, founder of GirlsDay, a prominent closed Facebook group for women in advertising and marketing in Chicago. “They’re taking information and helping figure out what’s best for each person. What’s right for a single mom who has no other income might not be the right decision for someone who maybe has a bit more flexibility in their circumstances and wants to see justice.” This kind of guidance and personalized support hasn’t really existed before, which is at least part of the reason why things don’t get reported in the first place. You could go see an employment lawyer, but that could be costly and wouldn’t include mental health support and the back and forth with people who really understand the peculiarities of your industry and your career goals.
And while some might not agree with their combative nature, and many questions remain about their tactics, playing nice hasn’t quite worked. “I think the fact that they need to exist, that they have a growing following, and they’re having an impact is an indication that we are in desperate times,” adds Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% conference, a company dedicated to increasing women’s leadership in advertising. “And so these are desperate measures.”