Bullying in marketing: The silent deadly beast?

Reports are confirming that workplace bullying and harassment have surged since the pandemic hit. Azadeh Williams identifies common forms of bullying that happen in marketing and precautionary measures you can take to help prevent it.

Marketers are under more scrutiny than ever before, forced to do more with less, more accountable for revenue and the first to be in the firing line when things go wrong. And with the pandemic adding fuel to the fire, marketers are feeling the pinch. But is that ‘pinch’ now feeling more like a hard, painful punch?

Bullying and harassment surges since the pandemic

A recent report in collaboration with the Fair Work Commission found 91 percent of respondents did not feel supported during a complaint procedure in 2020, compared to 88 percent in 2019. Meanwhile, 77 percent of respondents said bullying continued or escalated during the complaints process, compared to 64 percent pre-pandemic.

Interestingly the report found that bullying will often occur where there’s a ‘strict pecking order’, where people higher up the ranks are working and collaborating closely with those who have a ‘lower status’. Industries susceptible to bullying, the report notes, include those who are high achievers and perfectionists. 

It’s no wonder marketing and advertising is becoming a bullying breeding ground. Digiday reported interviews with senior-level and junior-level marketers and advertisers, revealing evidence of increasing patterns of bullying and verbal harassment since the pandemic.

Identifying common forms of bullying in marketing

Bullying comes in many shapes, forms and sizes. Contrary to popular belief, the ‘bully’ may not necessarily look or sound like the ‘classic alpha aggressor’ characters you see depicted in Hollywood. Think Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada.

In reality, the bullying can be so incremental and subtle, the victim doesn’t even know they’re being bullied. It’s the frog and hot water scenario, where the water boils so slowly that the frog doesn’t realise they’re being cooked alive. Macabre analogy, but a sad true fact of modern-day marketing.

Here are some common warning signs to look out for:

  • Gaslighting the go-getter: You’ve created a killer campaign and it’s achieved amazing, award-winning results. Yet the feedback and response you get from your superiors is barely a thank you. Instead, you get inundated with criticism for ‘what could have been done better’. 
  • The boardroom snicker: You’re presenting your results or campaign pitch. But your insights and contribution is secondary to the board members’ sniggery, snide remarks. Think subtle, yet inappropriate comments about your appearance, your gender, hair colour, clothing, age or ethnicity.
  • The last minute circus act: You’ve finished a marketing campaign, only to have your superior or client demand last-minute changes, revisions and reiterations with little to no notice or lead time, putting you and your team under extreme pressure. 
  • The sedentary C-suite: Your CEO, CFO and CRO don’t understand marketing. Their demands and deadlines to meet revenue targets are unrealistic, despite countless attempts to educate them on marketing’s core functions. Six months into the role and your budget gets slashed, making it virtually impossible to build an audience or pipeline. Threats to dismiss you start surfacing, even though you made it clear how marketing works. 
  • The micro-manager: Your superior needs to review every single line of copy, every email, every design detail of even the simplest creative. Anything you submit to them is smothered in red markup. There are countless meetings, revisions and indecision. Delay after delay. By the time the campaign or project is finished, the countless iterations have turned everything into a mediocre mess. 

Sound familiar? Burnt out and bullied? You’re not alone. A recent survey revealed marketing and communications professionals fared the worst among job functions, with the highest burnout at 83.3 percent. It’s no wonder marketing tenure is at its lowest in decades.

What’s the solution?

Sadly, there’s no easy way out. Bullying in marketing can often be subtle, complex and riddled with politics and legal repercussions. Here are a few precautionary measures you can take:

  1. ​​Create an airtight briefing process: Ensure you have a clear project plan with defined timelines, roles and responsibilities assigned clearly. That way, there’s less room for a bully to point fingers, especially when components assigned to them are clearly going amiss or getting delayed.
  2. Be wary of instant messengers: Instant messenger apps like Slack can be a breeding ground for out of office hour messages and last minute demands that eat into your personal time. Unfortunately from a legal standpoint, often the messages can be so fragmented on these platforms, that gathering evidence of the bullying for the purposes of a lawsuit can be extremely time-consuming or next to impossible.
  3. Include an anti-bullying clause in your contract: Ensure your employment contract has a clear anti-bullying clause. If in doubt, see a lawyer or HR advisor to ensure you’re protected contractually from the outset. During the onboarding phase, do your due diligence and ask your company what measures they have in place for bullying and harassment.
  4. Outsource to a specialist agency: Seek the advice of a seasoned, experienced media and marketing agency who have seen it all, understand the scars and all the war stories. A specialist agency can help alleviate a lot of internal stressors and concerns. They also often have robust workflow systems and processes in place that can help take the ‘bullying’ or ‘micro managing’ component out of your marketing efforts, and instead, introduce more efficient and collaborative ways of achieving great results.

Make some noise!

It’s time more marketers speak up, talk openly about bullying, and raise awareness that this is a serious and growing problem. Because only then can we start collectively making more robust industry changes to combat toxic bullying tactics and pave the way for a better, happier and more collaborative future of marketing.

 

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Azadeh Williams
BY Azadeh Williams ON 18 August 2021
Azadeh Williams is the Founder and Managing Partner of Global B2B Media and Marketing Agency, AZK Media.

A former publisher, editor and journalist (The Times UK, Sunday Times UK, Reuters, IDG) Azadeh has over 20 years' international experience in media, custom content, marketing and public relations.

An award-winning media and marketing leader, Azadeh has delivered integrated marketing and PR strategies for privately held and publicly listed B2B enterprises across the UK, US and the APAC region.

A qualified solicitor and former lecturer in media law and business journalism at Macleay College, Azadeh is also on the Judging Panel of the IT Journalism Awards, Mumbrella Publish Awards and B&T Women in Media Awards.