What you’re watching happen in digital marketing during the last month isn’t just about sexism. It isn’t just about gender politics. It isn’t even wholly about the issues I raised seven years ago in a post that would end up the unfortunate defining political moment of my career in SEO.
When I wrote that post I was angry and I couldn’t understand why asking not to be touched, groped, hit on, emailed inappropriate comments or even assaulted was a controversial request. Equally, I couldn’t understand why hiring and bragging about models, booth babes or even Playmates was gladly accepted by the entire industry, and even celebrated and looked up to as a personal goal. It made no sense to me. Could no one else see what I saw? Looking back, it felt like the actual definition of gaslighting: what you’re seeing isn’t what you’re seeing. It’s in your face but it’s you who’s wrong. I said that but you’re wrong if you heard it. Sit down. Shut up.
I wrote whilst angry, astonished and without the context of the last seven years to make sense of the culture. What’s happened since goes a long way to explaining why that environment existed, what encouraged and protected it and why there’s currently a drastic social shift in online marketing where the norms of that era aren’t resolving well with the modern industry.
It’s also most definitely not about jealous people wanting to be “rockstars”.
When I started working in SEO, the industry was only a few years out of an awkward, illegitimate infancy. My former boss Rand Fishkin had recently appeared in Newsweek talking about the fledgling practice. At the time, few people understood what SEO was, how it worked or why it was useful, but there were certainly innovative people who did and they made up the outline of what has become the enormous marketing niche it is today.
The industry was new and scrappily pasted together via forums and modest blogs. People were understandably cautious with sharing proprietary knowledge about essentially gaming a corporate system and as a result of all this, SEO had a reputation as a dark art. It could be frustratingly difficult to get budget from clients to do anything. It was a slightly dodgy coat of paint slapped on shamefully somewhere between copywriting and sorting out the hosting. You were used to everyone hating on you on Reddit or looking sideways at you at big client meetings. Eesh, the SEOs are here. Check they don’t nick the nice silverware.
This has almost completely changed. Maybe you’ll hear a snide comment here or there about search engine marketing but it’s much less common. It’s a key part of marketing, let alone online. It attracts recent graduates. It’s vital if you sell or market anything at all, be it your own work or anyone else’s. It’s a skill I’m glad I picked up early. But with this widely-adopted professional legitimacy comes a renewed perspective on the industry’s earlier days and, this month, its misspent youth.
And I certainly maintain that that youth was misspent. There was never any excuse, burgeoning industry of people gaming Google for profit or not, for treating women like shit. There was never any excuse for creating unwelcoming environments, many of them hostile on the basis of overt and celebrated sexism. It was as if people couldn’t differentiate the wild west nature of their actual work with how they should conduct themselves towards other humans. In the Newsweek article, industry veteran Earl Grey talks about what we’d have called churn-and-burn sites:
If his detective site gets booted off the search engines, Grey will simply move on to another project. “I’m not very professional,” he says. “I do what I need to do to get where I need to be.”
He is talking about ranking websites and returning with something new if a site is banned (and he is, by all accounts, an “awesome individual”). But there was a distinct trait amongst some others in the industry during the early days–and into the early 2010s–that the lack of “professionalism” they applied to making money off the back of search engines could be liberally applied to other interactions within the scope of their work. For what it’s worth, I largely don’t care how you rank websites and I never have. I do care how you treat other people.
We reached late 2011 and I was questioning myself: I wanted to quit attending gaming conferences that were rife with paid models, and whose after parties I found an awkward gauntlet of pretending I wasn’t one of the only women present whose measurements couldn’t be found on her bio page. But this was normal. This was fine. This was a bit of a laugh. The boys liked it and they will, as I was told, be boys. Some of the boys didn’t like it but they told me in hushed tones behind closed doors. They found it awkward and belittling as well. Best not say so though because you’ll be mocked.
If I quit going to those gaming events, I’d be missing out. The company I worked for was founded by ex-gaming SEOs and we did well in that market. It was a professional risk to say I wouldn’t speak at them or attend them anymore. This is part of what we mean when we talk about exclusionary environments and people who have to make a choice between being deeply uncomfortable doing their jobs, or letting potential opportunities go by the wayside.
For my own conscience I had to refuse to keep attending those events, and I did so with emails explaining why. The people who replied to me were women. They understood and quietly agreed. But they also had jobs and bills and rent, and that was that. Jane Copland was removed from the potential speakers list and nothing was said of it again. Years later, the fact that I’d worked for gaming clients and attended those shows earlier in my career was thrown at me as proof I was a hypocrite and should be discounted and shunned.
Very late in 2011, I got very angry. I had laid out some notes on the things I found grossly amiss with the industry about a year earlier and sitting at the Sutton Arms on Carthusian Street in Barbican one evening, I decided to publish what I had written. It was all driven by frustration and indignation. I had no cultural perspective on what was going on around me, but I do now.
This is a nice picture of the Sutton Arms I took on a sunny Thursday in February 2019 as I walked past thinking about this eventuality; this reckoning. But at the same time this isn’t about me. It was never about me, even though the people who stood to lose face on the basis of what I’d said made it all about me. This was always entirely about the culture they perpetuated and profited from, and it still is now.
In mid-February, I ended up writing what amounted to a thread on Twitter about why I think this is happening now and how it goes beyond playmates, lewd tweets, cover-ups of harassment and the boys’ club culture that I witnessed and had to tolerate at work events. I’ll plagiarise myself with the purpose of reiterating the point: I believe the era of the “rockstar”, which was borne of big personalities taking hold of a burgeoning industry in the 90s and 2000s, is finally over.
Those were the days of silly superhero usernames, forums, blog comments and wild conferences. No one had any qualms about stripping off in front of their industry peers at the Playboy suite at the Palms in Vegas during Pubcon and getting in the pool. I wasn’t at that party but I was at plenty of others. And for the most part, it was harmless. Most of us enjoyed ourselves most of the time.
Most of the time. Sometimes it went too far. If someone else can get web nerds to take their kits off and take a dip high above Vegas, you can probably get away with hiring some girls to do the same thing. Right? And if you overheard someone tell some other web nerd that you wished she’d have been there with more of her kit off in the pool, maybe you can get away with squeezing her arse to make the point. And if you can get away with all that, it’s probably because you’re well-connected, well-travelled, well-spoken and well-liked. The industry took the lack of professional legitimacy way too far because it suited people, at times, to push already flimsy boundaries. It may have been fine to carry on cheeky conversations or overuse sexual imagery in environments that weren’t threatening but it bled throughout the culture. All the while, people carried on as if marketing conferences were music videos and the subjects were actual celebrities.
From those days and that culture, a power structure was formed that is now clashing with a generation who weren’t there.
If you joined the online marketing industry straight out of university ten years after I did, you were 22 in 2016. The Weinstein scandal dropped about a year after you got your first job, but there were problems in tech that caused upheavals before this. Uber was a little earlier than Weinstein and is probably the best-remembered in our general field. Long before you joined–maybe while you were still in high school–tech was changing. You didn’t get a job in some fly-by-night startup where everything you knew came from sleuthing message boards populated by semi-anonymous accounts and burning affiliate sites. You were 12 when that went on and you have no context, no memory and no interest.
And it’s not just a matter of age. As long as you weren’t around to be wooed by the big parties, the girls, the big game talked by big personalities, all of it is going to look dated and unprofessional. Maybe even if you were around.
This past month, people have shone a new light on the issues I raised seven years ago and the result has been a far harsher critique than it received in late 2011, early 2012. It’s been critiqued through a 2019 lens and it’s come up even shorter than it did earlier this decade. This amazed and frustrated me because I was right back then and not only did little change, but I was slowly and quietly destroyed for it.
But more than that, the 2019 lens is being used to view the backlash, the defence and the perceived protectionism of those who are seeing the industry move on from the one in which they were a celebrity. It doesn’t feel right to a lot of people to see the official videos I pointed out as being gross seven years ago, and then see the critique dismissed as trolling. It doesn’t feel right to hear that many people have stories of bad behaviour but are too scared to talk about it lest they be maligned and labelled liars or trolls. It doesn’t feel right to the legions of normal people who’ve taken up normal careers in the industry that a select few view the industry as “theirs”, because they were the stars.
When one of the first defences I heard in private about this was that the people involved were just jealous that they weren’t “rockstars”, it occurred to me that we’ve hit a point where one generation is completely failing to understand the other.
Rhea Drysdale asked what those of us who’ve talked about this publicly what we want to happen. Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t attend events anymore. I do think there has been a wildly disingenuous about-face amongst people who used to brag about being rockstars and bad boys and who’d trash-talk feminism and mock me for mine, transforming themselves into caring feminists. Growing and changing is fine, but quiet reinvention when people were hurt by your actions, is not. It’s not fine when you never acknowledged it, never apologised, deleted evidence when you were faced with it down the line and hid behind accusations of trolling to make your case.
People like Rhea and Tom Rayner have mentioned some ideas already that would go far to making real progress, and I think they’ll do it well. I’d love to help. Before they’re successful however, I believe this industry needs to come to terms with the fact that it used to be an unfriendly minefield of machismo, and it needs to let go of the celebrity, rockstar culture entirely. And further, anyone who’s not willing to acknowledge it and make peace with it has no place leading the industry out of this decade and into the future.