My Experience of Bro-Culture Pushed Me Out of the Business

I researched and published piece about “Bro Culture” in advertising as part of my work with the 3% Conference a few years ago, and in attempting to keep an impartial distance from the research while I was conducting it (and out of not wanting my own experience to overshadow the experiences of the women who were generous enough to share theirs with me), I kept my personal experiences with “Bro Culture” out of the findings I discussed from the 3% stage and in my own written piece about it.

And since that time, I have read pieces by many brave women of advertising who have recounted their own personal stories in the open. I don’t work in advertising anymore, and don’t have to fear retribution for sharing— so when Mark Pollard, author, strategist extraordinaire and “Sweathead” podcast creator, asked me to talk about my findings on bro culture, I realized I had an opportunity to step out from behind the veil of researcher and share my own stories.

I want to start out by saying that I was lucky not to experience worse— some women I spoke to had harrowing stories of career-altering discrimination and sexism and sexual harassment that ranged from chilling to appalling. I was never so negatively impacted as to suffer as these women did, and as some still do. Having interviewed older women as part of my research, I know that those living in the business now have it better than our foremothers, who faced far more heinous jerks and upfront sexist attitudes and harassment than we ever did. That was in plain sight. And the reason culture of ad agencies is pressing now, is the day-to-day insidiousness is not yet gone, even as the out-and-out harassment and sexism might be depleting as less ‘acceptable.’ And while harassment and discrimination are most important to eradicate, the culture of ad agencies is also an important topic to consider.

I wrote in my first article about how culture is insidious, an undercurrent through professional life in agencies that steers behavior, and over time, cumulatively, has consequences which are not intentionally anti-woman but are decisively “pro bro”. And how the informal nature of bonding (e.g. drinking, bro-joking)—and the formal nature of doing business (e.g., one-up-manship, competition) present a day-to-day reminder that women are outsiders and men, or more typical male behaviors and modes of thinking, keep one in the inner circle within a business where being an insider can make or break a career.

As a woman from my research so brilliantly encapsulated: “You take what is flowing down the testosterone train or get left behind.”

When searching my own experience to make a list of the instances of bro-bonding and bro-man-ship I personally encountered in the business, I felt the weight of cumulation: one thing tolerated in any one moment might have been ‘fine,’ but when viewing them in aggregate over a decade and many agencies, were decidedly not. Recalling these incidents of bro-man-ship in advertising that I experienced over a decade reminded me of two things:

  1. How unintentional the cumulative impact of agency culture on women really is, but how painful the aggregate message for women is: be complicit in the culture or be on the ‘outs’
  2. How the culture of ad agencies was of silent assent to creative work that was bad for women and helped to shape culture outside the agency

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1. Looking back at my own decade plus in the business, I was surprised how many of the men from these incidents were ones I counted as “good guys,” and even still are counted as ‘better’ men when compared with the outwardly heinous jerks, who were always somewhere within agencies and open in reviling the feminine. Of course, these jerks were outpaced by well-meaning fathers, brothers, and sons, who were reinforcing or propping up ‘jerk’ behavior while navigating their way through the culture of a workplace to remain successful through the culture of informal bonding in advertising. Like any workplace culture, to be a full part of it is to be successful, especially in a business built on favors, favoritism, and crony-ship.

Without further ado, here’s a small and non-definitive list of bullsh*t from “bro culture” that I personally experienced or witnessed in over a decade working in ad agencies around the country:

  • A creative director who walked into a client meeting with nothing on but his tighty-whities (his underwear), in an effort to make the client laugh. It worked, and everyone had a good chuckle.
  • A high-level creative director who openly talked about going to Thailand for sex tourism, who had an affinity for a particular women at the agency, suggesting she should dye her hair a certain color or dress a certain way (provocatively, of course).
  • The account director who asked me if I’d participate in an annual ritual for the men of the office, in which they rated women’s looks, tournament-style (in March) to see which celebrity woman was the best-looking of all the gals in the “hardwood”.
  • The high-level strategist who didn’t even wait until he was out of corporate housing to cheat on his wife with a woman who was brand new in the industry, just out of college, a fact he bragged about to anyone who would listen.
  • The head of analytics that told me I was effective at my job because I was beautiful AND smart, and I had “everything going for me” as a result; a compliment he shared with several other women in the office (something tells me he didn’t call the men ‘beautiful’?).
  • The constant ‘jokes’— the derivatively dumb jokes that dudes always found funny over and over again and women felt compelled to roll with in an effort to participate in the bonding: laughing when the client made an oyster joke, laughing again when the head of a department made the same oyster joke years later, laughing when the creative director made sexual jokes about female clients, bonding with the ‘marry, bury’ game over happy hour cocktails (about other colleagues!), or chuckles for any innuendo: this sexy-stupid stuff was the kind of humor that ad agencies seemed to love the most.
  • The boorish agency bonding rituals that always involved drinking heaps and heaps: in a nearly fraternity-like one-up-manship manner, no less: self-titled “Booze Cruises,” games of flip cup, nightclub-based office parties, and endless happy hours in which one was expected to keep up with the client, or the highest-level boozehound on the account, on the corporate dime, until the most senior person decided the night was over.

Are we having fun yet?! There’s more, but why continue a list? The last few points are from a smattering of different agencies, not one, and represent the informal bonding the industry participated in, an industry in which people are trying to be a part of something, in an effort to be liked, to be both cool and promoted (literally and figuratively) as-such. To get the plumb assignment, to get to the next level, to get invited to the next social event that would be for the ‘cool kids’ and cement the relationships one needed to be effective and frankly, to be liked— a simultaneous need for ad agency culture success.

One of my earliest memories (if blacking out can be counted as a memory) was of going out with the agency team almost every night for happy hours that could last hours, and my 22-year-old self, fresh from college, still sleight in frame— being completely unable to keep up with the rate of drinking of the team, despite no option being given before a round was presented to me. This was advertising, and the way to gain the ‘cool’ factor and to gain influence lied within how many times you could finish your drink before the next one arrived. Sure, ad agency culture has gotten less liquid since then, but it hasn’t lost the need for the ‘cool’ factor.

Once I left the business, I remember thinking ‘what WAS that?’ Could we think of no other ways to have ‘fun’? Was everyone having fun, or equal amounts of it? Was everyone participating because they wanted to, or because they felt they had to? Sure, ‘forced fun’ is corporate, but was every industry bonding in the bottom of a glass? Or at the strip club, as many of my female friends attested to? I’d guess not except for a select few industries (tech, finance, etc.).

2. Women I spoke to around advertising recalled at least one instance of recognizing sexist aspects of actual ads the agency was producing or about to produce— some would fight the depiction of women (especially the more senior they were) and some would not; but it was clear to me that even as-of a few years ago, the ads coming out of the creative department still were (often irrelevantly) sexist, risqué-for-no-reason other than to amuse themselves, as most instances could not in any way have been designed to sell client product. ‘Creative’ work stemming out of a cliched male fantasy that smacked of a lack of the very ‘creative’ energy the department claimed to purport: angel wings, lingerie, busty blondes. The creative department seemed to have all the originality of a pinup calendar when it considered depicting females, in my opinion, and in my research, I found this was an experience many women shared.

One of these instances was the straw that broke my back in my career in advertising agencies, and pushed me from waffling about leaving the business to departing it for good, as I was sure of the cumulative impact of “bro culture” being hostile to women, and was no longer hopeful it would change — and I also realized, I no longer wanted to participate in the ‘bro-ness’ that was at the heart of the culture in each agency I’d been at.

I tell the story on the podcast, but it’s something that many women in advertising might relate to. In this case, it happened to play out in front of the entire agency at once (which like many, was majority women at the time). At a company-wide meeting, a piece of work was introduced BY agency leadership, who said was ‘some of the best work this agency has ever produced’— and what came next was so needlessly bawdy and totally objectifying of women to be obvious in its complete misogyny.

It was for a peanut butter and chocolate bar. The backstory I found later was that the creatives knew exactly the work they wanted to do before being briefed, and directed (read: told) the planner on the business to find a statistic supporting the fact that men might like this chocolate bar more than women: the planner obliged, finding men were a couple percentage points more likely to say they liked the combination of peanut butter and chocolate than women. Of course, it was a minor difference (and not one big enough to create a campaign around). But the creatives didn’t care about that, nor did they seem to care about selling the client’s product, as much as they did in indulging their own whims.

The work featured supermodels in their underwear holding the product, which wasn’t a promising start. Then, the women began speaking in foreign languages: a Russian dialect, and so on. English ‘translated’ subtitles below poked fun, making it apparent that it didn’t matter what the woman was saying (only how she looked). The big reveal was a tie-in to the website with a score assigned to one’s manhood based on a bunk questionnaire, with the ‘reward’ for a high score being: the same supermodels in their underwear, jumping on trampolines for twenty minutes on a loop. The (male) creative presenting the work chuckled: ‘Because we all know what men will do with 20 minutes of this kind of material’ — and everyone, and I mean everyone, laughed. I was watchful of the women of the agency as the work was presented: they darted their eyes around, laughed more uncomfortably than the men could discern, and applauded at the end, like good soldiers.

What they had seen as their employer, a large ad agency, so proud of creating masturbation material for men (and demeaning women) in the name of selling a product, they were compelled to play the ad at an all-agency meeting (this was just a few years ago, PS). At first, I was befuddled, and then, infuriated. It was so rage-inducing to see the reduction of women to sexy props, and for absolutely no reason— right then, the disregard for women I had witness over a decade in the culture of advertising agencies that was made so illustratively clear, that I couldn’t avoid the feeling any longer: advertising agency culture was toxic to women. For this agency, proudly so.

Sure, you might say, one or a few guys might have created that work, not everyone—  but culture was the grease this work would have required to get produced. Did anyone at any juncture in the creation of this work, at any stage, mention 1. how the work derided women and 2. the derivative nature of this simpleton male fantasy? Did anyone question the use of women as sexy props to sell a chocolate bar? Did any women at the leadership level speak out as it was brought to their attention? No. Culture is a gag that quiets the nay-sayers.

When we spoke about this incident on his podcast, Mark Pollard reminded me just how derivative this particular “creative” idea was, when he drew an thread to the exact same treatment “The Man Show” used in the 90s to end its show credits: women jumping on trampolines. That was masculinity as defined 30 years ago. Nothing ‘creative’ about that. Not a darn thing.

Ad agency culture didn’t rise up to stop this campaign that was bad for women, but it DID work to silence any detractors of that work once it was shown at the agency meeting. When another woman and I were questioning (in our open-office-plan) the work and speaking about how badly the work made us feel, an officer-level (male) strategist snapped at me to “get over it” — perhaps because it was work he’d had a hand in creating (he was the strategist that found the creatives their ammunition statistic regarding men’s affinity for the flavor combination). He was never a ‘jerk’ in his behavior— he had a young daughter, and was one of the ‘good’ guys. 

I’d had a decade plus of men telling me, directly or indirectly, to ‘get over it.’ And over that weekend, I realized that by leaving advertising agencies, I’d leave the toxicity of having this kind of sleight to get over. I resigned the following week and haven’t worked in agencies since.

When I interviewed the women for my research, some had left the business and others had not. Those who had left ad agencies were often pushed out by the “bronyism” — bro-culture cronyism they were tired of participating in. The cumulative impact of bro-bonding cost advertising plenty of talent just in the interviews I conducted— the real talent-loss count to the business must be in the hundreds of thousands.

I hope that by telling some of my personal experience with “bro culture” that ad agencies can continue to question the informal and formal methods by which business is conducted— and can ultimately, re-define how agencies think about ‘fun’ and ‘cool’ in the informal part, and how agencies dole out assignments and communicate internally in the formal part. Ad agency culture has to change before women can ever be full members of it.