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The Rules of the Game

31 Oct 2017  |  James Whitmore 
The Rules of the Game

James Whitmore recalls the sexual politics that existed in agencies throughout the 90s - and how a laddish culture seeded a disturbing view of how women could be treated

Amidst the mounting stories about Harvey Weinstein, I discovered this comment by Meg Rosoff, a former colleague. She talks of the 1990s; of agencies, of misogyny and far worse. I cannot corroborate her claims as I was not witness to them. Nor can I say with any certainty that she is talking about the company where we both worked or if the events took place at another employer.

What I do know is that few men dare to comment even though we are all complicit to a greater or lesser degree. I also understand that the past has gone and that the thing is to be certain that similar abuse does not occur today and nor will it happen tomorrow.

I vividly recall the “boysy” culture that was widespread at the time. I remember an agency chief whose idea of small talk was to call you into his office and ask you to rate the “top 5” women in the company. If you did not engage, his alternative gambit was to quiz you about whether you had slept with any colleagues, or to hypothesise about those with whom you might like to do so.

After a few abortive encounters of this type, in which you failed to respond, you would be branded as “not a team player”. You were excluded from much of the soft politics of the company as you were ostracised from the leadership “banter”.

I recollect being admonished by a chief in our New York office for failing to take a US client “out whoring” when he visited London. I treated it as a joke but I am fairly certain that it wasn’t. It is all very well seeing this as the plot line in an episode of “Mad Men”, which it was; it is another thing when it is you in the picture.

I could go on. And on.

But I also know that at the time, I spoke to female colleagues, asking why they put up with the priapic ogling and groping. The common response was “not to be silly, it’s only so-and-so being so-and-so”. Did they mean it? Were they uncomfortable talking to me about it? Perhaps some women did take it in their stride.

You end up questioning yourself. Am I a spoil-sport? A prig? A prude? You feel isolated and odd. Of course, it is how this type of power is able to assert itself. Feeding off “grey areas” and treating it all as a bit of fun. Pushing away those that do not adhere to the ethos.

Perhaps some may have seen it as a game. Maybe a contest with unwritten rules. It is just about possible to imagine that it was OK for confident men and women who were in control of themselves and the situations in which they operated. It certainly did not work for subordinates and those uncertain in their relationship to authority. These people were and are in jeopardy. They are owed proper protection.

Laddish, locker-room culture is not benign. It seeds a disturbing view of how the less powerful, generally women, can be treated. Sadly, sexual harassment and misuse of power permeate all areas of life.

I have no idea about the sexual politics in today’s agencies. I no longer work in one. I would suggest an absolute minimum is to define what constitutes harassment and most importantly, to post it in clear view within the office. Typed up on a piece of paper and stuck to the wall. The people who think of this as nanny-ism are not those in need. It is the perpetrators and the victims that are owed the elimination of grey. It is black and white.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I was lucky enough to see this at the closing gala of the London Film Festival. Very dark and riotously funny, it is out in January.

Apart from the entertainment value, it is salutary to see a plot driven by physical media. Three likes on social media just wouldn’t be the same.

James Whitmore is managing director, Route.

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08 Jul 2020 

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