BITE Focus

It is time to say NO to toxic behaviour

With 60 years’ experience in the industry between them, Sue Higgs and Melody Sylvester highlight the importance of drawing boundaries, listening to one another and finding your tribe.


What would happen if we all told and spoke the truth, not only to each other but to ourselves? For too long the industry has been built on dedication masking as overwork, on resilience hiding exhaustion and on damaging behaviour masquerading as natural hierarchy.

But this needs to stop. There is no place for toxic behaviour in the creative industries or any industry in 2020, something that both Melody Sylvester and Sue Higgs believe in passionately. Between them, they have 60 years of experience in the industry and both believe that we need to end toxic work cultures to build back better.

Higgs, who is an Executive Creative Director spoke about the powerful article she shared on LinkedIn earlier this year detailing her experience of workplace bullying. It was something she’d kept secret for years, not wanting to rock the boat whilst simultaneously not knowing where to turn. As she explains, writing the piece demonstrated how universal her experience actually was. She says she was blown away by the outpouring in the aftermath of her post and a follow up article in industry magazine Campaign: “it was overwhelming…[it] got to the point where I thought you’re more likely to experience bullying than not.”

As Sylvester, who is Head of Production at ENGINE, explained to ensure that bullying ends: “we need a new level of honesty and truth. Organisations have to be more honest about what works and what doesn’t.”

If we can talk about it, it may just help other people.

Melody Sylvester

We need to start talking

Both Higgs and Sylvester expound the importance of speaking up and out both about their own experiences but also on behalf of those who might not yet feel empowered to do so. “We need to speak honestly and openly and truthfully about some of the systemic behaviours have underpinned our industry for years,” Higgs explains, adding that, “if we don’t start talking, we’re not going to change anything.”

Both believe that it is beholden on them now, with years of experience behind them, to use the voices and platforms they have to drive meaningful change. Because, as Higgs says, in the industry, “we seem to skim the surface [of the problem]; we never pull it out from the roots.”

Sylvester talks about her own experiences this year, highlighting the events around the death of George Floyd and the aftermath that saw a wave of protests sweep around the world. That moment, she says, “was the game changer, it polarised everything. It brought us back together and started this conversation.” She says the distance she experienced physically from her office made her consider the environment she worked in and, she says she realised that “for the first time in my working life I felt like I really needed an internal network of support in the agency.” So, she started one, founded on the importance of talking, and listening, to one another.

Lead by example

Sylvester and Higgs both demonstrate the power of leading by example, of standing up for those coming up behind them. Because, as Higgs says, “when all’s said and done, we are just people.” This doesn’t mean, she believes, appointing a Head of Culture, but rather leading from the top. She says that when she and Sylvester started talking about their experience in the industry, “we feel like between us, we’ve survived somehow [so] there must be something we can impart to keep people in the industry.”

Because that, Higgs believes is the fundamental problem: the industry doesn’t work hard enough to retain talent. People are treated so poorly that they feel the only logical next step is to quit. Sylvester says that when her and Higgs met many years ago, “I didn’t have a voice to say anything then.” But now, she says she’s found her voice and feels “a responsibility to do something.” “I’m sick of talking about [toxic behaviour], sick of keeping a lid on it. If we can talk about it, it may just help other people,” she adds.

Challenging the status quo

Higgs comes back to her experience of bullying in an agency, of how hushed up it was, even though people knew the behaviour was wrong. “You weren’t even empowered as a PA to have an opinion let alone raise an objection,” explains Sylvester. Higgs adds that there were many aspects of herself that she hid during her career because it was easier to do so, for example not telling people that she had children. “I never want anyone to go through what I’ve been through,” she says, “so we have to use our voices to make sure some of these behaviours are overturned.”

Kemp points out the danger of the language used when describing why people leave the industry for example ‘dropping out’ rather than being left with no other option. “It is toxic language because it takes no responsibility,” says Kemp, adding that the “framework in which we talk about talent always places blame on the person leaving.”

Sylvester agrees as she highlights the reality that the continuous conversation around D&I without the action to back it up, “starts to make diverse talent a problem to solve.” She herself is frustrated at decisions made across the industry to not hire from diverse talent pools, “because why are we still talking about this?” As she explains: “it’s good business sense to have a diverse workforce that reflects the audience that you serve.” “It just doesn’t make any sense if you don’t have teams of people who understand the audience they’re working on,” she adds.

The language is dedication, it’s not about burnout. There are no boundaries.

Sue Higgs

The font of presenteeism

“The industry worships at the font of presenteeism,” says Higgs. “The language is dedication, it’s not about burnout. There are no boundaries.” She points out that much of this problem stems from the soft management approach of the industry, which has its benefits as much as it does its issues. “Someone once said, you work nine to idea,” says Higgs. But, she adds, “why should you burn yourself out for profit? As a human being and a person, you shouldn’t be expected to have your adrenal system on fire to do your job.”

Sylvester tells a story of how, when she first started, she spent much of her career being sent to the pub to collect the creatives. “And you didn’t want to go but otherwise you weren’t fun,” she explains. This culture gap, this presenteeism, has only been compounded by the entire industry shift to remote working as digital presenteeism becomes a very real problem.

The reality is that each person’s situation will be entirely and uniquely different. Whether that’s young people in flat shares, sharing Wi-Fi or separated from a creative partner or working parents juggling attention given to both children and colleagues. Higgs says that she has noticed a hierarchy on Zoom calls. But, she says, “it’s up to a creative director to make sure the young people speak first because they’re the ones that need the most support rather than sitting in a little black box in the corner.”

Her advice, not only for junior members of staff but for those across the industry is to “draw your own boundaries.” You need to be vocal about what you’re doing, how you’re working and to flag to your colleagues where you might need support. “The other person might not know. You owe it to yourself to explain,” she adds.

But, says Sylvester, alongside individual responsibility comes the vital role that line managers should play. “If you have a team to manage, [one] thing to be aware of is particularly in this environment, don’t pretend you have the answers, because no one knows what’s going on,” she explains. “But put yourself in the position of asking. A lot of the solutions to problems will come from your own team if you ask them,” she says. It’s essential that managers don’t foster a culture of presenteeism within their team and instead, Sylvester adds, “show a level of respect.” As Higgs says, “if you are leading a team it’s OK to say this is difficult.”

We’re all human

Sylvester believes that it’s about bringing it back to the humanity of the industry. Just check in with each other. We’re all human, we all experience trauma. Even if you’re worried you might not have the right language to do so, says Sylvester, “reach out to everybody and just listen.” Higgs says that because of the shame she felt in the aftermath of her experience of being bullied, she didn’t talk to anyone. Now, she says, she advises people to always talk: “there’s nothing you can’t deal with if you talk to someone.”

Both Higgs and Sylvester emphasise the importance of finding your tribe. As Sylvester says, “find your network and if there isn’t one, start one.” Higgs adds, smiling that “behind every woman is a WhatsApp group.” She offers her support to anyone who might need it, highlighting the importance of respecting one another and empathising with every experience. Higgs flags organisations like She Says and NABS, both of which offer support to those who might need it. “Everybody is experiencing pretty much the same thing,” says Higgs, adding that “it doesn’t have to be like for like.”

Sylvester points out that when she says network that really only needs to be one person, because, she says, “chances are that person can connect you with another person or two people.” She also wants people not to shy away from checking in because they worry their experience of the world is different. “You can check if someone’s OK regardless of whether you have similar characteristics”, she adds.

For Sylvester, this last point is an essential reminder, particularly to her white colleagues who, as the Black Lives Matter protests took hold across the world, “found it difficult to know what to say to their black colleagues and or friends around that time. They didn’t know what to do with that awkwardness.” She explains: “I can say from the black people I spoke to they didn’t feel they could take on the awkwardness of their colleagues. They just wanted someone to ask if they’re OK.”

Because ultimately that’s what any industry, any company should be built on the back of: humanity. “People just want human connection and they just want to know that you care,” Sylvester says. Higgs’ advice to people is if they spot a problem or are experiencing something they don’t know how to handle, do everything in your power to take some control back. “Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself because your mental health is more important than any creative brief you ever get given,” she says.

The conversation between Higgs and Sylvester highlighted just how important it is for people to choose not to be bystanders to toxic behaviour; to draw their own boundaries; to not pretend you have all the answers. Fundamentally, both emphasised the importance of looking after yourself because sometimes, in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, even the most basic act of self-care can feel like a radical act.


Sue Higgs and Melody Sylvester were speaking at BITE LIVE 2020. To watch the full conversation, visit the dedicated event page, It is time to say NO to toxic behaviour

Related Tags

Culture BITE LIVE 2020