Diversity and inclusion might be the fashionable buzzwords in the ad industry right now, but many industry women, particularly black women, are being frozen out of major events like Cannes because after hours they’re being propositioned and assumed to be prostitutes by some male delegates.
Sherry Collins, editor and founder of Pitch magazine, found herself on the receiving end of such treatment the first time she attended Cannes Lions, in 2016, to promote her publication. The experience left her questioning herself.
“It was horrid, the first time it happened. It made me feel as though I was an outsider and I was thought of as such,” she says. “I carried on with our conversation as though nothing happened, talking about my mag as much as possible, and even managed to walk away with his business card. I didn’t want the experience to ruin my business trip.”
Since this experience, Sherry has heard more stories from other black women who have experienced harassment in Cannes and while travelling abroad. This has led Sherry to create a platform to raise awareness and to help women who have been propositioned to feel less ashamed and embarrassed. She coined the hashtag #AssumeNothing before Cannes 2018 and has been using her magazine to help get the message out, as well as speaking to the media.
“The #AssumeNothing hashtag was coined a few months ago when I was thinking of putting the advert in our Cannes special issue. I wanted a hashtag that would be for all women. That assumptions shouldn’t be made just because of the colour of our skin,” says Sherry.
“A lot of women have been embarrassed to discuss what happened to them, I was the same too,” she adds.
Antoinette de Lisser, head of marketing and sales at Absolute Group, is another woman who has been subject to this treatment and who has recently started speaking openly about her experiences. “I’ve been attending the Cannes Lions festival for the past 15 years. And this happens: Every. Single. Time.” she says. Recalling the first time she was propositioned on the Croisette back in 2003, she says that she had been excited to attend the festival and believed she had reached ‘the pinnacle of my career’. That feeling of elation was soon punctured when Antoinette was propositioned – and to make matters more embarrassing, it was done in front of colleagues.
Antoinette speaks passionately about how the experiences have made her feel, saying it’s ‘demoralising’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘horrific’. “It’s like that nightmare where you’re doing a talk on the stage, and the audience is staring at you because you’re naked. It leaves you feeling cheap and used. This year I had so many incidents happen in the space of half an hour that I was absolutely FUMING and had to return to my apartment to ‘change my attitude’,” she says.
The #AssumeNothing hashtag has been kickstarted to support all women, but while Antoinette has heard about white women who have been propositioned, the anecdotal evidence points to this being something experienced far more regularly and frequently by black women. The problem, overwhelmingly, is one that’s both racist and sexist.
“I’m not sure why black women are targeted more at the Cannes festival though. It may go back to the fact that we are not seen as being part of the creative industry as there are so few of us – so assumptions are made," muses Sherry.
As well as being personally upsetting, the behaviour is having a wider, more insidious impact on the industry. Antoinette says that she has heard of black women who have decided not to attend Cannes because of experiences of being propositioned – locking them out of the biggest, most career-boosting event in the advertising and marketing industry calendar.
So what has been the response to Sherry’s #AssumeNothing campaign so far? “Cannes Lions has supported our campaign, which is great. I have also had positive support from friends within the industry and also people who I don’t know as well have got in touch via email to say well done on highlighting the issue,” says Sherry. What’s more, the campaign has been picked up by the BBC, both online and on BBC Radio.
At a recent Pitch event in London, celebrating the magazine’s 2018 ‘Pitch 100 Superwomen’, Sherry and Antoinette shared their stories – and the response from the audience sticks in Antoinette’s mind. “There was an audible gasp from the audience. The ladies were horrified. You could feel it in the room. So many of the Superwomen have offered to help me out. And the hugs! I had so many that morning. It was the right thing to do, to share my story and I could feel the support.”
Sherry speaking at the Pitch Super Women event
But it’s not all been positive. On social media, Sherry has experienced men mocking her and her campaign. “I have had one weird response on a LinkedIn post I put up sharing the campaign. A white gentleman from within our industry said our campaign is against black prostitutes. And when I explained that it wasn’t, that it’s about highlighting the disrespect shown to some black women who are on a business trip at the Cannes Lions Festival, yet are assumed to be there selling their bodies just because they are black, he said, ‘…people should stop moaning about every bad thing that happens to them...’ All I can say to that comment is wow. We have a long way to go.”
To those who say that the issue is not such a big deal or that it’s an example of oversensitivity, one has to ask, ‘how would you like it?’.
“Walk a mile in my shoes. The flat ones. Along the Croisette and at midnight - then come and talk to me about it,” says Antoinette. “AND IT IS a big deal. Especially when the industry is CRYING OUT for diversity and yet, this is how the industry behaves. It’s abhorrent. It’s embarrassing. It’s an oxymoron and bloody hypocritical.”
“I would say to that person [who thinks that it’s a minor issue], to get dressed one day and go and head to a networking event, eager to meet some new contacts and clients for your business. And while you are there, have the first person you meet ask if you would like to sleep with them for money as they had assumed you were there to sell your body. And then have the same thing happen again and again at the same event. Once they’ve experienced that, then they can talk about it not being a big deal. I’ve only experienced it once and I felt deflated and little. Others have experienced this again and again and have had to put it to one side while they try to get work done,” says Sherry.
Equally, says Antoinette, pity is another response that she’s been met with. It’s on that she’d rather see replaced with something more proactive and helpful. “I don’t want pity, I’ve never wanted that – I now need to turn this bad experience into something positive. And we’re gonna need some help.”
So, what can individuals and businesses do to help? On a personal level, Sherry hopes that by speaking out, more people will be able to share their experiences. “I think we should all share our stories, especially those who have been propositioned at the Cannes Lions Festival, white or black, so we can support each other. A lot of my white girlfriends were unaware that this happens at Cannes to black women - that some of us have a different Cannes experience.”
As for events organisers and agencies, Sherry would like to see the issue being taken seriously and delegates to be unavoidably informed that such behaviour is not acceptable.
“I think Cannes Lions and agencies can help with our cause by practicing what they preach – that the industry should be more diverse and inclusive. Agencies can make it clear to their employees who are attending the festival to show respect to all women at the festival and Cannes Lions can highlight this more by printing on every delegate pass, in the daily Cannes update newspaper and on their website, that sexual harassment of all women is not tolerated at the festival by delegates,” says Sherry, who is giving perpetrators a heads up that at Cannes 2019, they may find themselves caught red-handed.
“Next year some black women will be wearing mics and recording their experience at the Cannes Lions Festival and if anyone is propositioned for sex, we are naming and shaming the man and their company, along with their image on the Pitch website and on our social channels.”
And Antoinette is pretty pragmatic about where the solution to the problem lies too. “To be fair, prostitution is one of the oldest businesses in history. It’s even in the Bible. So I don’t think there’s anything that we can do to stamp that out. However, within our industry there IS something that we can do.”