The global pandemic has provided the opportunity to talk about what it means to share space. Within marketing and advertising agencies, space is important—and we have felt the loss of no longer bouncing our ideas off neighbors in real time or hunkering down in war rooms until inspiration strikes.
But another conversation about sharing space is required too. The reaction to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery is a pivotal reckoning centuries in the making—and a long overdue moment of brutal honesty for entire industries. Like never before, people are stopping and listening. And the word we’re hearing too often is trauma.
Our agency workplaces tend to be full of buzzy energy, looser and absent the clearer boundaries you’d find in other professions. Egos and bluntness are not only tolerated, but celebrated. We call this atmosphere “culture” but rarely pay attention when that culture robs employees of a sense of safety, an expectation of control or our very worth.
A common misunderstanding is thinking trauma only occurs with horrifically violent events, or it’s an obvious one we can see and name. But trauma is much sneakier and more sinister. It’s often the small warning shot that reminds us our workplaces can be as dangerous to our emotional health and physical safety as the outside world.
While advertising and marketing is meant to reflect real people and their lives, our agencies are overwhelmingly white, run by men and can be hostile to power structures being challenged. Traumatic moments can be the comment during a creative review meant to put another in their place, or the cultural norms meant to “other” certain groups of people, hinting at potential pain or danger.
We can no longer afford to ignore the real and sensed danger in our industry.
If trauma can live under the line, operating in the gray areas and crevices we can’t always name or see, then how do we deal with it?
What you don’t know about trauma
We can track it through a concept called fault lines, earthquakes and tsunamis.
Fault lines are the cracks in our foundations that make our work cultures unstable. When we tolerate a lack of inclusivity or when practices elevate a specific type of employee or behaviors, working styles and even dress, it sends a signal that some may not be valued and therefore not protected. You don’t have to look further than agency leadership makeup and the male-oriented perks like beer taps and foosball tables to see this. If you’re a part of a community that experiences trauma in the outside world regularly, internal detectors go on high alert.
Earthquakes are those events that confirm our suspicions. Like real earthquakes, there are small tremors along with the unmissable ones. When agencies don’t fully trust the experience as described by a victim and instead protect the reputations of others, especially their high profile leaders and creative stars, they fail to understand that people who have experienced harm are the best detectors of traumatic events, not the other way around.
Finally, just as an earthquake can lead to more devastation in the form of a tsunami, trauma tends to build, not resolve. Whoever said “time heals all wounds,” didn’t understand how open-ended events take on additional gravity. Agencies may want speedy and quiet resolutions, denying an employee the time and space to fully recover. For people who know about an event, there is dissatisfaction and distrust that people really matter. And it further emboldens bad actors who see how much of the status quo will be tolerated and defended.
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