The Higher You Rise, The More Complicit They Expect You To Be.
This year I was fired, unceremoniously.
The conditions were so bad that four months later I am still coming to terms with
The experience has been catastrophic in terms of the effect on my confidence and
the damage caused by key colleagues, clients´ and friends who have had varying
degrees of coercion, be it explicit or implicit.
There is only one way to describe this experience and the two years before my firing
Agencies use the term “toxic” as a well-known descriptor for the highly political, ego-
driven megalomaniacs that have sat high up in C-Suite land, thinking the world owes
them a living and that without them the business would fail, not just fail, but crumble
and burn to the ground.
We´ve excused this toxic behaviour and misappropriated it with key definitions
“they´re difficult”, “a disrupter”, “creative” and “a change-catalyst”.
These sentiments are often used by the people who hired said toxic figure or who haven´t got the balls to fire them. And by balls, I mean power, because one thing toxic figures thrive on is swinging their weight around and making threats:
“I leave and the client leaves with me.”
“Without me there is no agency.”
“I will talk to the CEO/Board/CMO who personally asked for me to be on their
business and let them know you want me out…”
They rule by fear, often lying and ensuring they hold on to key information they were
trusted to share, because the one thing they have is they are excellent gamers. Their
primary motivation is to out manoeuvre anyone that gets in their way, their toxic gun
at the ready, not for a game of roulette, but for a precise target and when the target
is hit, full force with as much devastation as possible, then they feel alive – that they
have won, for now.
I had a target on my back when I started to challenge, question and require clarity on
the direction of our clients´ business and supporting creative output. This was a no-
go, even though as a fellow C-Suite exec it was a requirement of my role.
However, toxic figures don´t want challenge, debate or anything that may question them or the decisions they make. It is a mafia approach to business – kiss the ring or feel my
Normally in these circumstances you have support - either within the agency, agency
network, with clients or via work colleagues. These were far from normal
This toxic figure had instilled such a high level of fear with key figures that no-one and I mean no-one was willing to do anything and I´m talking about very senior figures, Global CEO, President etc. Why? Because this toxic figure had an equally toxic partner in crime - the lead marketing client on the biggest piece of business. This dynamic duo – ´the toxic couple´ were in cahoots in equal parts of love and hate. So intertwined were they that they were referred to plurally and seen as a force (albeit a very dark force) to be reckoned with.
This type of relationship in advertising is from yester-year, an era that embodied Mad
Men and reeks of co-dependency, insecurity and underlying threat. However, be it
yester-year or not, the underlying threat had a whole agency network and holding
company willing to sacrifice as many people as required to ensure their billings
weren´t affected. Silence is golden when it works in your favour. Silence is a killer
when people who should know better, much better, become deaf and mute, and by
definition of their inaction support bullying, abuse and intimidation.
I witnessed the worst behaviour of my career at this agency all derived by this toxic
couple and their need for power and control. It is as if they metaphorically puked
over their victims as a way of purging themselves, because they take no
responsibility, they don´t stand up and say why they act the way they do, they are
coercive, they chip away at their victims, they talk behind their backs, they lie –
repeatedly, until their required story, their narrative becomes their truth. A truth that
no one will challenge. I nod to their brilliance in this way, it is war games at there
That said, I reject and reject with every ounce of my DNA their lack of
humanity. They have trampled on many to get to where they are and they will
trample on more to make sure they stay there – truly ugly, despicable and
This dynamic is everywhere, it´s well known and well documented. That said, it is
often referred to in the past tense, because we are meant to be creating better
agencies, human-centric, dynamic and creatively interesting with discipline in
adhering to core values and not the discipline of one or two toxic people.
I´m big enough and old enough to get through my disappointment, resentment and
utter disbelief, but as a seasoned agency professional I offer this advice:
If a toxic person dominates your working life do something:
1. Seek professional help (and don´t forget HR work for the company so will do
what the company tells them!)
2. Document every interaction with dates and attendees / witnesses
3. Create a support network – it can feel like you are the only one, you are not –
talk to trusted colleagues, friends, family & loved ones.
4. Ensure you look after yourself – physically & emotionally.
5. Start looking for another job and list out your key criteria that will make you
6. Get away, as far away as you can from the toxicity!
And remember this quote, at all times:
“When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others
see you. This misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that other
people will eventually see the truth, just like you did.”