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Drawing a hard line under sexual harassment | #CannesLions2022

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Sexual harassment is the kind of thing that, by all rights, should have been weeded out of existence decades ago. As a species, I’d like to think we’ve evolved enough socially since the “boys club” days of the 1960s to be able to call a spade a spade and shine a harsh light on unacceptable behaviour when it happens.

Unfortunately, however, during an event such as the Cannes Lions, when the lines between work and fun begin to blur and people are separated from their inhibitions for long enough in an exotic location, the worst human impulses can surface.

Sexual harassment is still an issue in advertising. In 2021, research commissioned by industry task force timeTo found that in a survey of 1,250 people, half (49%) expected sexual harassment to rise as the industry returns to office work. Nine out of 10 (89%) added that sexual harassment is an issue the industry still needs to tackle. We can easily assume unfortunately the same concerns will translate to Cannes, as this year will be the first physical festival in two years. 

The only way to truly dispose of this menace once and for all is to start looking inward. Of course, Adland is far from the only breeding ground upon which sexual misconduct is allowed to flourish, of course. But as inherent champions of the underdogs, the thinkers and the feelers, is it not up to us to set a standard for other sectors to follow?

With stories of appalling behaviour and sexual harassment already surfacing in the industry in the run-up to the first in-person Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity since 2019. It might be time for the industry to ask itself where the line needs to be drawn.

Time to change

This year, timeTo is re-releasing a film it originally launched before the festival in 2019. “Where do you draw the line?” Created by Lucky Generals and Another Film Co’s Steve Reeves, is shot from the point of view of a young woman, Kelly, shows her getting into a taxi after a night event at Cannes whilst a male colleague corners her as he climbs into the taxi. What follows is a sobering tale that offers support to anyone concerned or uncertain about what to expect from Cannes this year regarding personal safety. 

Furthermore, timeTo is also using the platform to try and encourage senior agency people to properly protect their staff from sexual harassment and aggressive behaviour. 

It’s certainly a fine balancing act that timeTo has tasked themselves with performing, as if they pitched it wrong, they could be seen as the “party poopers” out to spoil the fun and joy of the biggest creativity festival in the world by acknowledging its darker side. But to ignore it is to accept it.

The Cannes Lions code of conduct 

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timeTo have urged senior leaders and agency heads to look after their staff with the following plans:-

  • If you are in a senior position, you have an extra obligation to set an example and not use your power over people more vulnerable than you.
  • Set the culture: make clear the standards of behaviour expected of everyone in the workplace, even when in Cannes.
  • Familiarise yourself with the timeTo Code of Conduct and share it with your team attending Cannes.
  • If you aren’t an endorser – sign up NOW and download the Code and assets so that you can share them with your team.
  • Leaders also ought to be talking to every member of staff ahead of the event to ask them to let them know immediately if they are feeling unsure or under pressure. Make sure you are contactable for your staff and know they can go to you day or night if they are being harassed. 
  • Look out for your colleagues: If you are a witness to sexual harassment, speak up. Tell the person that their behaviour is neither funny nor appropriate or point out the offence. Explicitly point out to them what they are doing and cite the code if necessary. Offer support to the person on the receiving end of the harassment.
  • Pre-book your cab back to the hotel or premises where you are staying if you know you going to be returning late from a function.
  • If you see something happening that you know is making a colleague very uncomfortable or distressed, step in, speak up, go to their assistance.
  • Have the NABS advice line number to hand if you feel you need advice and support 0800707 6607.

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In a perfect world, these are not considerations anyone should be making. But this is far from a perfect world. Thankfully, one thing the pandemic achieved was helping us all look inwards a little more and examine our behaviours.

The key takeaway, however, is that the onus should never be on those travelling to Cannes this year to protect themselves. It should be on those in charge to protect them and to act in a way that cultivates widespread change in the industry as a whole.

The culture has changed and it’s time we all changed alongside it. More people are already starting to openly discuss the subject of sexual harassment but talking about it is not enough. We need to draw a line under it right now and hopefully enjoy a Cannes Lions not simply “as good” as it was but better.

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