Geeta Rao
Jul 12, 2018

Deja Vu: Thai Kham Meng and life after Cannes

Barely a week ago, this guest author had applauded the gender inclusive stance of Thai Kham Meng, Ogilvy's worldwide creative chief who was fired yesterday for reasons that are currently under wraps. Do Indian companies have a similar zero-tolerance policy when it comes to senior executives?

Deja Vu: Thai Kham Meng and life after Cannes
Five days ago I wrote a piece, ‘The lioness’ share’ on gender, inclusivity and all the positive signals coming out of Cannes. I mentioned Ogilvy’s Tham Khai Meng who had announced that Ogilvy would partner with the 3% movement and commit to hire twenty senior creative women by 2020. I applauded his gender inclusive stance. Imagine, reading this morning that Khai had been terminated at the agency he has headed for a very long time for inappropriate behavior! 
I don’t know the details, as yet, but just in case (I hope not) it was for sexist or non-inclusive behavior then it makes the commitment to gender inclusivity hollow and a case of virtue signaling. It is an issue I raised in my last article, when I gave the example of Nike.
There are several things going through my mind right now. One is that Ogilvy has done this twice over. Neil French was terminated ten years ago when he made sexist comments about women in advertising implying they lacked commitment to their jobs. I won’t repeat the exact words but they were offensive.
The WPP group of which Ogilvy is a part had gone one step further earlier and asked its Founder to leave for inappropriate behavior (though not a case of sexist behavior).
It is rare to hear of such instances in India because we seem to apply different standards here.
Let me share a story that took place recently. A young woman called me out on social media after I posted an article titled ‘Sexist bosses’ by Nancy Vonk and asked me if I had a comment on sexist bosses in India and whether a blog alone was enough to get a response from the powers that be. I was intrigued and asked her to write to me with details, committing I would personally speak to the agency in question or to their Network head in India. I was saddened by her story of a sexist boss who consistently denigrated women, mocked them for taking maternity leave, made inappropriate comments in general and so on. I wasn’t shocked though as there are many men like this in the corporate world – men who just forgot to read the memo that times have changed. It wasn’t just the one woman who had quit the agency after feeling harassed by the constant denigration, but several who had similar issues. When they complained to the HR head (a woman) she took no cognisance. Anyway we decided to follow due process. I wrote to a senior person in the organisation – a strongly worded letter with a suggestion that whatever the outcome, the agency should start a series of gender sensitisation workshops because often-older men have no clue as to what is appropriate. She sent me a positive response referring to the company’s zero tolerance policy and forwarded the mail to her CEO. The HR person was sent to that office to set up an enquiry. By this time more women came forward in the hope that things were moving and they were a part of the change. Well, to cut a long story short – the HR person met them all, agreed there was an issue. But then the only action taken was the person in question was called, reprimanded and he then returned to work. Presumably he promised never to say anything inappropriate again. As far as I know he did not even apologise to the women in question. To my mind this is not even a token nod to zero tolerance. Even a town Hall style apology would have brought a sense of closure to the women. I wish I had sent this sequence of events to the New York office in the first place and I am sure the outcome would have been different. The women who had spoken out were disappointed but something was seen as better than nothing. That’s how low our expectations are here. But there was also fear of retribution. The boss was still the boss.
The question it raises is how do you trust an organisation that does this? Who decides what constitutes inappropriate behavior? Do male bosses decide this or are women consulted at all levels? Often if you are a senior woman no one will mess with you, but juniors and interns may face a different set of issues and are sometimes too scared to talk. Should an outside agency be called in with no bias to hear the stories rather than the HR head? It is difficult to go to work feeling uncomfortable without being able to articulate the reason why to anyone.
Droga5 sacked its CCO for not respecting that the organization was a “safe and inclusive space”. What constitutes a safe and inclusive space in Indian agencies I wonder?  Women have to come forward and demand a clear definition of what constitutes inappropriate behavior. Perhaps in the agency enquiry I mentioned none of the things the manager said were deemed inappropriate but if it made women feels uncomfortable then who’s was the deciding opinion? Many things that are not taken seriously in Indian companies will stand up to scrutiny at global headquarters. But the heat is on and it would be wise for agencies to have some kind of audit and understand whether there are issues that women face. Please don’t set up a ‘manel’ to decide this!
The real issue is that network agencies will have to comply eventually with network rules. This is a people’s business. Agencies cannot afford to lose talent either way – people who are sacked for inappropriate behavior are often very talented, but also abuse power. People who leave because they feel harassed cannot perform in an unsafe place. There are many stories like this in Indian ad agencies but women will not come forward if they stand to lose their jobs or hard won laurels. Agencies must take gender sensitisation seriously in order to retain talent.
Gender sensitisation is about understanding that certain kinds of physical contact, the use of sexually loaded language, asking women deeply personal questions often about their marital state are not acceptable. Gender inclusion is to provide equal opportunity to women at the workplace and have enough representation, so it is not an all male office where there are no women in positions of power. Sometimes women in so-called positions of power have no real power and even that won’t do. We have a long way to go but the dialogue must start now. 
(Geeta Rao has been Group Creative Director, Ogilvy India and Regional Creative Director Ogilvy Asia Pacific.) 


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