CCO firings a sign of agencies' waning tolerance for misbehavior

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At MM&M's third annual Hall of Femme event in June, attendees celebrated the progress of women leaders breaking through, rising up the ranks, and punching through the glass ceiling. It served as a sign that things were changing for the better in this traditionally male-dominated industry, especially in the era of Times Up and #MeToo.

Last week's firing by IPG's McCann Health network of its chief creative officer was, on the one hand, an indication that things are not changing as quickly as we had hoped. Bad behavior is still rife within the industry, even if it takes a very public incident like this to bring it to the surface.

Then again, the firing of its CCO, Jeremy Perrott, after the network investigated a complaint that he had violated the company's code of conduct, is in itself a sign of progress, women leaders have told me.

Perrott, who had been with McCann for nearly three decades, was terminated after an internal investigation of a complaint he used “offensive and inappropriate language,” Campaign reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

The story appeared a day after revelations that WPP's Ogilvy Worldwide, too, had parted ways with its CCO, Tham Khai Meng, an Ogilvy employee since 1999, after an investigation into a complaint regarding the executive's behavior, also per Campaign.

See also: What's the diversity story in healthcare agencies?

To be sure, inappropriate behavior is not an anomaly in healthcare marketing. At MM&M's first Hall of Femme event two years ago, women shared instances of gender bias in their careers.

But even as #MeToo has upended the broader advertising industry, with a number of high-profile execs having left mainstream agencies in the past year amidst sexual harassment allegations, most healthcare agency execs have said instances of sexism and misogyny are few and far between. If anything, the culprit in this sector is of a more subtle nature.

For example, one woman ad executive, who asked to remain anonymous, told me she had a manager who gave her childish nicknames and did not include her in senior client meetings despite the fact that she ran a major office within a global agency. While this may not have amounted to sexual harassment per se, she said she was treated differently vs. her male colleagues.

To the extent we had somehow thought health was above the more serious fray, think again. Conduct of a more worrisome nature exists within health agencies, and among their most senior leaders. 

“No industry is immune, it seems,” wrote Kristen Gengaro, managing partner for Omnicom's TBWA\WorldHealth, in an email. “And while I'm personally fortunate to work in an organization where there has historically been a zero-tolerance policy and demonstrably swift action, I am certain that isn't a universal experience in our industry.”

But enforcement of proper conduct is catching up to the misbehavior. That leads to a second observation: the CCO firings suggest that both of the policies she refers to—zero tolerance and demonstrably swift action—are becoming more common among agencies.

Lisa Suennen, who, among her other roles is co-founder of CSweetener, a mentoring organization which helps healthcare's C-suite level women advance in their careers, expressed that sentiment: “Thankfully Boards and executive suites are starting to take these charges seriously and not just sweep them under the rug, as has been typical in the past. Hopefully this will lead to better behavior as poor actors realize there are actually consequences.”

See also: How women can empower themselves to close biopharma's gender pay gap

If they choose to ignore charges of untoward behavior, the consequences for agencies could be a loss of talent, as Golin Chief Creative Officer Caroline Dettman noted at Golin's Have Her Back event in New York this week. Agencies must foster a diverse and inclusive environment or they will lose women creatives, and that would put them at a significant disadvantage, as numerous studies on the impact of having a diverse workforce have shown.

IPG chief Michael Roth, who attended Golin's event, commented that networks need to set the tone here, empowering their people. Indeed, given that situations are different and there can be no silver bullet solution, part of the answer when it comes to fostering such a workplace is for leaders to empower people to call attention to inappropriate behaviors.

An IPG spokesman told me the holding company has in place multiple avenues for employees to report workplace issues, ranging from anonymous surveys and alert lines to direct channels to managers, HR, and the legal department. “When we do receive a complaint, we take appropriate action,” he noted.

There's another important ingredient: a top-down commitment to transparency. “The tone starts at the top with an authentic dedication to driving change, and a relentless commitment to transparency around these issues,” added Gengaro. “And I'm damn inspired to see people turning hurt into visible action—versus just engaging in cyclical public debate—in service to creating safer and more equitable cultures in our organizations.”

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