At least four prominent men working in the advertising industry in India have resigned after several women called them out on social media for sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo movement sweeping across the country. Dentsu Aegis Network announced on Thursday that Bodhisatwa Dasgupta, Kartik Iyer and Praveen Das had stepped down from their positions at Happy Creative Services, an advertising agency owned by Dentsu. The statement said that a fourth man, Dinesh Swamy of iProspect India, a digital advertising firm also owned by Dentsu, had stepped down too.
Dasgupta, who was senior creative director at Happy Creative Services, was considered a rising star in the industry. At least four women have accused him of sexual misconduct. At least four women have also made allegations against Happy Creative Services Chief Executive Officer Kartik Iyer and Managing Director Praveen Das.
In its statement Dentsu said: “Dentsu Aegis Network has always believed in providing a safe environment at our workplaces which is free from any kind of harassments. We have a zero tolerance policy towards any kind of harassment at our workplaces.”
Most women working in the advertising industry are, however, not convinced that this shake-up will clean up the profession, which, they say, thrives on casual sexism. Additionally, it appears that while multinational corporations have been forced to take action against men accused of sexual transgressions, smaller agencies have not even acknowledged the allegations let alone act on them.
A woman who interned with Dasgupta when he was employed with advertising agency J Walter Thompson or JWT accused him of asking her “deeply sexual” questions during her interview. She said that such behaviour continued during her internship alleging that “he asked me to watch him masturbate. He repeatedly asked me to bring my boyfriend to have sex with him and his girlfriend”.
Another of Dasgupta’s colleagues from JWT alleged that he often made lewd comments, and said that she was kicked out of his team at work after she told him off for his inappropriate behaviour.
A third woman anonymously alleged that Dasgupta sexually harassed her in his house in March 2017, when he was still employed with JWT. In an account published on Medium, she alleged that he touched her inappropriately and did not stop despite her repeated refusals.
In a fourth anonymous account, a woman who met Dasgupta via a dating app accused him of stealthing – the act of covertly and deliberately removing a condom during sex without a partner’s consent.
Dasgupta has released two statements since the allegations against him first surfaced. “I have a genuine problem with boundaries,” he said, in his first statement. “I am not a sexual predator”.
Appearing to take responsibility for his actions, he added: “Everything that is happening to me today…is my doing, and mine alone”. He also made references to childhood traumas and how he would seek therapy to connect the dots between his traumas and his actions.
Dasgupta later deleted that statement and released another one, where he issued an apology. “Looking back, I’m not even sure why I thought I could get away with it, or why I even did the despicable, shameful things I did,” he said.
Other advertising men to be outed on social media as sexual harassers are Sajan Raj Kurup, founder and creative chairman of CreativeLand Asia, and Sudarshan Banerjee, co-founder and managing partner of Utopeia.
[Updated to add: In an email to Scroll.in, after publication of this article, Utopeia said that the allegations are currently under investigation in an internal enquiry. “We would not be able to disclose any further, until the enquiry is concluded as it would not be fair to anybody involved,” the company said. The company also enclosed a separate statement in which it said it was “deeply saddened” by the reports and “also deeply distressed that there were people who felt unsafe and humiliated” at their workplace. “We are investigating the incidents mentioned, on priority and necessary and even punitive actions will be taken to address any wrong-doings as per the company policy,” the statement added.]
Scroll.in asked CreativeLand Asia whether it was looking into the allegations against Kurup and whether any action had been taken so far. The firm responded saying: “CLA has always been committed to providing an environment that is very safe and conducive to bring out the best talent of every individual working here. CLA abides by all requirements of law when it comes to protecting the interests of all its employees. Gender sensitisation of employees and awareness measures are continuous and on-going processes at CLA. As a procedure any allegations on individuals are investigated thoroughly and relevant actions are taken.”
Cool and casual sexism
Even though there are far more women in advertising than in many other professions, it is still a male-dominated industry. In recent years, advertising agencies have tried to implement women-friendly policies to both ensure a gender balance and have more women in leadership roles.
Yet, all the women that Scroll.in spoke to said advertising remains a profession dominated by men. Like in many other professions, there is a bro code among the men in advertising, where they look out for each other and promote each other’s interests, often to the exclusion of women, pointed out Ketaki Rituraj, head of business-to-business and design strategy at the advertising agency Taproot, which also belongs to the Dentsu Aegis Network. Additionally, advertising has a culture of looking up to its gurus.
“There is a whole culture of having these gurus that everyone must bow down to,” said Rituraj. “There are a few stars in the pantheon who command a lot of respect and anything they say goes. And all of these are male stars. I think that is a product of the casual sexism where they all promote themselves and each other and cover for each other.”
Sneha Nair, a copy supervisor with five years of work experience, said that advertising is such an awards-hungry industry that a lot of bad behaviour by men is ignored because they are talented. “If you are talented and if you are perceived as someone who can get the agency awards, you are going to be protected,” said Nair.
She said another factor that plays a role in creating an atmosphere that leads to sexual harassment are two qualities seen as key to fitting into an advertising agency – being cool and liberal. “We are so concerned with being cool and liberal all the time that having a sexually-loaded atmosphere, passing a lewd comment or cracking so-called non-veg [dirty] jokes are par for the course,” said Rituraj. “The moment you get uncomfortable with it, whether you are a young woman or even a man who doesn’t want to participate in these jokes, you are mildly shamed for not being cool enough and you are immediately the prude in the room. Somewhere, that breeds a culture of casual sexism which then gets taken too far.”
Nair said that this kind of sexism is often on display in brainstorming meetings. “You are told not to think too much and say the first thing that comes to your mind” she said. “I have noticed that this often becomes…an excuse for sexist comments or sexist jokes.”
Nair reiterated Rituraj’s observation that if someone points out that something inappropriate was said they are perceived as uncool or even getting in the way of the creative process.
This perspective is somewhat acknowledged in Dasgupta’s first statement. He said: “I’ve never known these boundaries because I was never told how uncomfortable someone may be feeling with my presence, or with what I was saying. I was never pulled up. I was never spoken sternly to, saying ‘buddy, you can’t be doing this, this is not normal behavior’…people said ‘Oh, that’s Bodhi being Bodhi.’”
Where are the ICCs?
There also seems to be a lack of proper institutional mechanisms at smaller advertising agencies. “A lot of us feel that #MeToo in advertising has not really taken off,” said Rituraj. “Most of the people who have been accused are sitting in office and weathering out the storm. Bigger companies seem to be following due process but in some of the smaller companies especially where the founder has been accused, they are right there in office.”
Rituraj said that several small advertising agencies have been set up in recent years with small teams and small offices. While large organisations have to make sure that they set up committees for prevention of sexual harassment and workplace codes and ethics, these smaller agencies are not as meticulous about having these measures in place.
“One of the most ridiculous things is that while all ad agencies should and possibly do have Internal Complaints Committees and follow Prevention of Sexual Harassment guidelines, no one ever knows about it,” added Rituraj.
Two women who anonymously called out Banerjee on social media told Scroll.in that when they worked at Utopeia they did not know the organisation was supposed to have internal complaints committees to hear and address complaints of sexual harassment.
The woman who first called Banerjee out – in a Medium post – worked at Utopeia for more than a year, and has been in advertising for about three years. “I was not told when I joined that there was any committee where we could complain,” she said. “It is a small company and everyone is close to Sudarshan [Banerjee], so I never complained about it. I didn’t know if it would come back to hurt me.” Another deterrent, she said, was the fact that initially there was no one hired to look after human resources at the agency, and later Banerjee’s wife took up that job.
The second woman who outed Banerjee on social media this week said she had raised a complaint about his behaviour while she worked with Utopeia. “I had raised the issue with the HR person who happened to be his wife,” she said. “I got one letter of apology from him, which made it sound that I was possibly misinterpreting his behaviour.” The woman said that after the complaint and apology she felt that she was being discriminated against at work. “I was not called for meetings and my junior was called instead of me, which was weird,” she said. “I was kept out of the loop, I was pulled up for the way I dressed and told that I was sitting on the terrace and gossiping. There were things other than my performance that they complained about. So I quit the company in about four months.”
She also feels it is more difficult for an employee of a small agency to report harassment than it is for one at a larger agency. She recalled how a previous employer run by a multinational corporation had an helpline where employees could register complaints anonymously.
Ashwini Deshpande, co-founder and director of the design company Elephant Design, said she believes that every professionally run advertising, media, digital, PR, events or design agency would have internal complaints committee in place. “What needs to be investigated is whether the committees are truly formed as per guidelines, are they functioning as per norms and whether an atmosphere of trust and credibility has been created by the ICC,” she said in an email to Scroll.in. “This would be the only way to curb predators and get survivors to use the mechanisms available to them.”
Deshpande pointed out to other reasons why there are likely to be far fewer complaints than the actual number of incidents. “Most women are already fighting a number of battles to just continue working despite all other responsibilities they are expected to take on,” she said.
Most of the complaints about men at advertising have also been made anonymously, another possible reason why smaller agencies may not have felt compelled to act on them.
No quick fix
Twelve women in leadership roles in advertising advertising and design agencies, including Deshpande, have responded to the #MeToo campaign by forming a group called The Collective that has put out a letter that says:
“We are aware that each of out companies has policies and practices in place. However, we feel that it will only help to have a platform that is agency/network agnostic, easily accessible, backed by women leaders, with a singular focus in addressing harassment across the advertising, design and media industry at both network and independent agencies. We need to work towards it as an industry.”
Desphande and other members of The Collective said that the group is discussing the next steps and the exact details are being worked out. “It will not be a quick fix,” said Deshpande. “Our focus is on improving the future.”