Industry POV

Has Arunabh Kumars Case Revealed the Dark Side of Indian Ad & Media Industry?

15 Mar 2017

Last year, statistics from 4A’s, a national trade association that represents US agencies, revealed that more than half of women in advertising have experienced sexual harassment at least once. The report was kind of an eye opener for us in the Indian ad industry which, time and again, has created award winning campaigns on gender equality and women empowerment.

Once again, a sexual harassment case has rocked the Indian ad and media industry. This time Arunabh Kumar, CEO & Co-Founder, The Viral Fever is under the scanner. On March 12, an anonymous blogger under the name of Indian Fowler posted a blog on that accused Kumar of repeatedly sexually harassing her for two years. Titled as ‘The Indian Uber –That is TVF’, the accusation mentioned that Kumar tried to force himself on the victim on several occasions such as parties, meetings, office and also attempted to offer her to another person.
The post has already gone viral and evoked reactions from all corners of the country. Interestingly, once the post went live, several women came up and shared their story of how Kumar harassed them. A couple of senior industry professionals also mentioned how they knew about women who faced harassment at the hands of Kumar, adding more to the smoke.

This is not the first time when such a case of harassment has emerged in the open. In recent times, Pooja Chauhan, Co-Founder, Vayuz accused Mahesh Murthy, Investor of sending her lewd messages. Similar accusations were also made by Wamika Iyer, Founder, against Murthy.

In another recent development, Amit Singhal, SVP, Engineering, Uber had to move out from the organization. The reason was that he had not disclosed about a sexual harassment case at his previous company, Google, during his interviews at Uber.

As per published reports, Gustavo Martinez, erstwhile Global CEO, J. Walter Thompson, was sued by the agency’s chief communication officer for sexual harassment and routinely making racist and sexist slurs within the agency's offices and other public venues in front of numerous witnesses. Following a law suit, Martinez had to step down from his position.

The 4A’s report further shares that one in three women has not received desired assignments or promotions at least a few times because of discrimination. Going forward, nearly 42% of the participants in the survey said that they have not been included in decision-making because of discrimination. It also pointed that two-thirds of women agree somewhat and 19% agree totally that there were times they personally experienced discrimination without realizing it at the time. Some 39% said they feel potentially vulnerable to discrimination at work due to their gender, while 15% said they feel very vulnerable.

AdAge India spoke to several industry stakeholders and veterans to understand on why such incidents take place in the first place and what kind of culture should be there to prevent them in future.

Dark Reality

Prabhakar Mundkur, Chief Mentor, HGS Interactive Solutions feels that such cases happen across industries. “I think that if one becomes rich and powerful at a very young age, he tends to think of himself as invincible. He feels that power is so attractive to women that he can pitch on it and never get rejected. With success at a very young age, one starts getting a feeling that nothing can go wrong and he would not fail. As a result, many start equating success and money with being sexually attractive. In this case also, if it was just one person accusing Kumar, then the matter would have been different, however, at present multiple woman have accused him which clearly aggravates the matter,” adds Mundkur.

He further adds that in India when a senior management person is accused in such a case, the entire company comes out to defend him. “They try to hide his crime and support this person since he is very senior. It is difficult to understand the motivation behind doing so, because if it is just to squash a powerless person then it is completely wrong. The problem, I think, in this country is that there is a stigma attached to anything if a woman says happened with her. She is called names and a lot of trouble comes along in her personal and professional life. On the other hand, if you go in the West, women are free to sue anyone and people do not even care. We are a more traditional and conservative society when it comes to a woman, and as a result they are always on the defensive. Women feel afraid because of that and decide to leave such matters quietly. It seems like India is more forgiven for men for whatever reasons,” avers Mundkur.

Anjali Hegde, CEO, Ansible India mentions that it is not the dark side of our industry but the dark side of our society and it spills over into our workplace as well. “At the workplace men and women spend long hours together. If the trust is violated, it vitiates the atmosphere of the entire organization. There must be certain codes of conduct, which must be followed especially at the workplace. Things are better today for women compared to years ago – they have access to social media, they speak their minds, there is heightened awareness at the society level as well as in organizations. But for the person who goes through any kind of harassment or humiliation at work, it is a nightmare. It is something which must be addressed and resolved. It takes great courage for a woman speak up on these matters and therefore I always give more credibility to her in case of any complaints. What I find very disturbing about this case is TVF’s press statement. Their response comes across as arrogant, aggressive and very poorly crafted indeed. TVF should have given more attention to what they are saying – they are in the business of communication,” shares Hegde.

She further adds that as working women, we think that we must know how to handle an issue like this. “For men, they think it’s not a big deal and that any complaint is essentially making a mountain out of a molehill. The perpetrator remains unabashed because there is no social outcry against his conduct – he does not pay a professional price where clients walk out on him or his colleagues boycott him. A sexual misconduct had cost Tiger Woods his career, his endorsements, his reputation, his family – everything. Unfortunately in India, specifically, no man has paid a price professionally. Let’s face it, it is a man’s world – that is the harsh reality. If we want a more fair society, we need to have more stringent penalty for crossing lines – regardless of the gender,” asserts Hegde.

Prathap Suthan, Chief Creative Office and Managing Partner, Bang in the Middle, points out that wherever there is close proximity between men and women who work in high pressure environment, this is bound to happen. “We have lawyers from apex courts getting caught, politicians with rape charges, actors charged with casting couch, so it is not just the advertising industry where such cases pop up. In such cases, the complaints should be done immediately for companies to take action against such people. Also, if you see, it's when the culprit is high-profiled that the case changes. When high profile people get involved into such things and when the girl is bold enough to talk about it, then it catches fire."

The Right Path

Things do not change just like that. There needs to be strong policies and a conducive environment where people can feel safe and talk about anything they feel is not right.

As Ashish Bhasin, Chairman & CEO South Asia Dentsu Aegis Network, Chairman Posterscope and MKTG Asia Pacific - ‎clearly mentions that the organizations have to give a very clear message that there will be zero tolerance to any incident of this kind, and there has to be a process of sensitization. “There are two aspects to it, first is legal which includes Vishaka Committee Report recommendations and large organizations follow that. Second, there should be a sensitization program for employees, on what are the limits, do’s and don’ts. If somebody is not doing something right, who should they approach and how to go about it. There are online courses available too. For example, DAN worked with to ensure that all its employees go through the online training for the sensitization program. I believe that is the first step. Secondly, the company needs to have clear policies and there has to be a conducive environment for people to report any such matters. Other than HR Policies, we have also formed DAN Woman Council that guides and mentors our female talent."

Adding to this, Hegde mentions that as an organization, they give a lot of importance to gender issues. “There are regular training programs to make employees understand how to recognize harassment, how to not violate an individual’s privacy and dignity etc,” shares Hegde.

Sharing a similar sentiment, Dhunji Wadia, President, Rediffusion Y&R said, “Individual acts should not be attributed to the industry at large. There will be instances of people in power misusing their authority. But there are also examples of action taken against such people. The sexual harassment of women at workplace is a legislative act and every organization is mandated to have a committee to address this. People violating the guidelines should be ready to face the consequences.”