It was in the October of 2018 that #MeToo in advertising raised its ugly head in India with many allegations tumbling out. At Spikes Asia 2019, an executive with three decades of experience in advertising took the audience through how she has dealt with the issue. Merlee Cruz-Jayme has seen gender disparity, harassment and stereotyping from close quarters, in her 30-year career in advertising. Edited excerpts from her talk at Spikes Asia 2019 are reproduced in two parts. This is the first part of her address.
Merlee Cruz-Jayme calls herself the Chairmom, probably a tribute for having smashed glass ceilings all through her career.
As the Chief Creative Officer and chairmom of Dentsu Jayme Syfu took the Inspiration stage at Spikes Asia 2019, the delegates at the final day of the event got the inspiration that they could take away and treasure, till they come back for more in the next edition of this festival.
In a jury president’s address, titled, “when the glass ceiling seems unbreakable”, Cruz-Jayme took the audience through a whirlwind tour of her 30-year-old career, including real stories of bullying by prospective employers, harassment at the hands of her agency’s biggest client when she had just started out on her own, and so on. “As I was moving up my career towards leadership, I'm actually battle scarred,” she said promising to share a few examples when she personally went through trials and tribulations that many women professionals are familiar with.
“You know, and there are a lot of glass ceilings in the creative world. Believe it or not, we thought it's a very happy-go-lucky kind of atmosphere,” she said adding that, “there are two types of glass ceilings. The first one is a glass ceiling made by the world. The second one is the glass ceiling made by us.”
“Are you still a virgin?”
Going back to the days when she was being interviewed for her first job, she was aghast when a senior creative person asked her a question about her virginity during her first job interview.
When I was preparing for being interviewed, for my very, very first job, into this agency, I wrote some questions that I may be asked. And I wrote some good quality answers . I was a fresh grad at the boardroom and male creative directors enter the boardroom. As I was really ready to be asked any question, the first question one of the male creative directors asked me was, “so are you still a virgin?”
I was like, a mix of emotions, right? Angry? Surprised or shocked or ashamed? I don't want to answer. I said, that wasn't in my resume. And I don't think I need to answer the question.
But in a world where you have A-holes, you also have the other guy in the room who was a gentleman. And he chided him. And he continued asking me professional questions.
“How do you smash something like that?,” Cruz-Jayme asked the audience, and said, one has to fight back at all costs.
So what eventually happened at that interview was that she got hired. “But I had to work my butt off to be respected in that office.” And to this day, I know that guy and make sure that he feels more embarrased about the interview, than I am.
Sexually harassed by a bread-and-butter client
Fast forwarding from her fresh grad days to the day when she owned her first agency, Cruz-Jayme took the audience through the founder’s dilemma. When you start a new agency every single client is important. But this was an incident that happened with the largest client of the agency – one that accounted for 70-80 per cent of the revenues.
Her biggest client had called for a presentation. And it was 10 PM when they finished work. And he asked me, Merlee, can we discuss something else? So I'll have to go with him back down to the lobby. We enter the elevator and there are no red flags whatsoever. After we entered the elevator, that's when I started to realise how small the elevator was. He started making advances towards me. I have no formal training on self defence. Though, with all the movies I watched, I was starting to do all the possible moves ever. Do not come near me and behave yourself. And I was pressing all the buttons in the elevator.
After that incident, I spoke with my partners. This is a dilemma. This is a huge client. This will affect us like hell, what do you want, it's not worth it. Sacrificing this account is better than working with a pervert. But you know loss of revenue equals losing people. Eventually, we just got rid of this client. Later, that person resigned or was kicked out and the account was won back by our agency. But you have to fight at all costs.
(Part two: How to deal with gender disparity or stereotyping)