TRIGGER WARNING: This article discusses sexual assault in detail, in a workplace environment. If you or someone you care about needs support, please contact 1800 RESPECT at 1800 737 732. In an emergency, call 000.
Bec Brideson is an advertising warrior who has helped to carve out a safer and more inclusive industry for women. She was the youngest female Creative Director nationally, and the first Australian woman to give a keynote presentation at Cannes Lions. Today, Bec is founder and Executive Creative Director of Venus Comms, an agency specialising in gender intelligent communications – a niche that she has pioneered globally.
Bec’s work was recently recognised by Monash University when she was invited to make a graduate address. For weeks, Bec grappled with how much of her truth to impart with the advertising men and women of tomorrow. She settled on honesty – sharing dark stories alongside the light, to help young people be part of the change.
Her speech is grounded in two distinct drives. Positive drive to change an industry she is passionate about, and rage that the path for women’s success is so disproportionally difficult. Bec’s speech has been edited for brevity, but her words are unchanged. You can also watch a video of the full speech here [scroll to 1:22hr].
BEC BRIDESON: I acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners, and Elders past, present and emerging, of the lands and waters on which Monash University operates – the people of the Kulin Nation.
Sir Winston Churchill famously apologised: “Forgive my long letter… I didn’t have time to write a shorter one”.
Fortunately, I’ve had the luxury of the last 8 weeks, to write my very own ‘short’ letter to you, the Graduates of 2021.
It would be an understatement to call this opportunity ‘a privilege’. I can say, hand on heart, I would NEVER have expected that things would turn out this way – I was far from the most outstanding student. On occasion my Head of Faculty would see me walking the halls and scratching his head and say “Bec! You’re still here?”
And let me assure you, he wasn’t referring to the fact I’d studied late that night.
It’s curious the power of words and their ability to change lives in an instant. Words like:
“It’s a boy!!!!” OR “We couldn’t save her”.
“I’m leaving you”.
“Congratulations you got the job”.
Hence when I read the words in the email asking me to speak to you, my perception of myself as a Monash Graduate was reshaped in an instant. Suddenly what seemed to be my long-and-hard road to success, now appeared to have taken me but moments to accomplish.
What has driven me has come from two sources. One source, my positive source, is passion. Passion to create. Passion to communicate. Passion to make change. And yes! Passion to succeed. My second source, my negative drive if you will, is frustration. Anger. Rage, even, that the road to become a successful businesswoman should seem so much longer and harder than the path to become a successful businessman.
Together the passion and frustration seem to constitute my creative muse, and my view of the world in which I work. And where I have sought my triumphs.
As a woman in advertising, I was an outlier in an industry that was dominated by people we cheerily refer to nowadays as ‘Mad Men’.
These Mad Men I joined – straight out of Uni in the 90’s – devalued women in the workplace as much if not more, than the vacuous kind of women we saw portrayed in their advertising. Females were often objectified, belittled, and diminished.
You may be wondering why I stayed so long in the industry when I realised right from the start that it was sexist and chauvinist. Well, as we painfully know – it is not just the way women are portrayed in advertising that’s the issue, because advertising merely holds up a mirror to society…
Injustices that women (and other marginal groups) suffer are everywhere and found across many professions: in Medicine and Law, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. And yes! Right here in The Federal Parliament of Australia.
In my career I chose not to let the actions of a few Bad Men nor the culture of the ‘Mad Men’ define who I was and where I was going.
I used both my positive passion to succeed – and the rage and frustration - to propel me. And I’m proud to say I’ve done alright. I’ve climbed well above base camp more than a few times.
• I opened my own ad agency – you’ll soon learn why.
• I am the first Australian woman to give a keynote at the Cannes Lions in France.
• As a creative leader I’ve challenged the way we stereotype all genders.
• And – I’ve become a published author sharing my views on the valuable emerging female economy.
But one of my biggest achievements is being a mother to my two girls. I strive to make positive impact on behalf of their future, and it is for them and every daughter, son and child, that I will continue to challenge the status quo.
I’m playing the long game and to borrow from the ad-world’s abundance of clichés, I’m using the rain to make rainbows. And I’m turning lemons into lemonade.
So, my first of three learning points for you Graduates is that what feels like adversity can actually drive your determination to succeed.
When you find yourself navigating tough environments, which you inevitably will, your creative muscles will just get stronger.
Up till now, you’ve heard the way passion drives my ambition and success. But for a moment, I’d like to share the less fun bit. My frustration and rage, and where that took me.
The day after I handed in my third year final folio at Monash, I started work experience in an agency down on St Kilda Rd, which was incidentally known as Bullshit Boulevard because of the number of agencies headquartered along the same strip.
A few weeks in, two senior guys in the Creative Department of this agency picked me up by my arms and legs and they put me into an empty recycling bin – a wheelie bin. Yes, I struggled, but they were bigger than me and because they thought it was funny, I tried to laugh along with them and not seem like I couldn’t take a joke.
Using gaffa tape to seal the bin lid down, they delivered me to a corner office of a company director, who had just returned from a long, mostly liquid, lunch. This Director wheeled the bin into his office. He locked the door behind him, he closed the blinds and he sexually assaulted me.
Now a bit of background. As a child, I had experienced sexual abuse and I’d learned the horror ‘3 Fs’ – flight, fright or freeze. On this occasion my body chose freeze.
Shell-shocked, I found a female staff member and told her what had happened. Her eyes welled up with tears. She looked at me knowingly and she offered me these words: “Never be alone in a room with the Directors who work here – especially if they’ve been drinking”. Sage advice, but some days later another Director cornered me, this time in my tiny office. And so I left my unpaid ad-land job, and whilst you could say I’d gained experience – it was not the kind of experience that would advance my career. And inarguably not the kind of experience any male or female should be subjected to at work, or in any other place for that matter.
A couple of years later at an agency in Sydney, another male boss, sober, tackled me to the floor of our open plan working space. My lovely (mostly male) colleagues looked on speechless at what my boss did next. He grabbed a permanent marker, took the lid off and still pinning me to the ground – he proceeded to draw a penis across my forehead.
Sadly, I’m only sharing the more palatable events today. You see despite my developed hypervigilance for such predatory behaviour, I experienced all kinds of harassment at all levels of my career – that was until I started my own agency.
As the recipient of such unwanted attention, can you believe that I was asked to sign two nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in a legal attempt to silence me? Although the silencing has been somewhat effective – though for how much longer I’m not sure… you know what’s really ironic?
The rage I have felt has made me double down on my determination to make every part of the marketing industry a better, fairer, and more relevant place – for the sake of us all.
I’m sure some of you Graduates may already have had your own kind of struggles and injustices – I hope not like mine. But I do know for a fact that for all of you living in Melbourne through a global pandemic, it has been tough. In spite of this, you are all proof that even if you do get locked-down “you get up again”.
The last two years of your formal education has been a zombie apocalypse scored to a soundtrack of “you’re on mute” on and a steady stream of Uber Eats notifications. The loss and suspensions of everyday freedoms has given you a unique experience but I assure you, your internal software has been upgraded with a better operating system of skills.
Whatever the next big challenges are, you’ll be even more prepared than any previous generation to navigate them. In the great “reset” of the ashes, you Graduates will be the Phoenix that emerges. Or the parrot that plummets – but that’s up to you.
Some of the best future leaders are sitting right here – maybe in your seat.
My second learning point is that you have already overcome a struggle of a global proportion, and each and every one of you has emerged from it more capable. So run toward the fire.
At the beginning of my short letter – I spoke of the power of words to reshape perceptions… And now I invite you to think about some other words:
“I will not be lectured by this man.”
“Change the date.”
“I can’t breathe.”
I had no idea a creative career in communications would send me on the front line of a seemingly invisible war against women and down the path of advocacy and equality.
Sometimes I think ‘imagine if I had left – walked away – given up, not stayed.’ Not started my own agency. Not learned how to find my power and use my creative muscles and talents to build better.
And so my final learning point is never let anyone take your voice.
We need you creative and clever men and we need you creative and clever women. We need you to use your influence to assist with the ascension of humanity.
To close out this letter I leave you with this. It may be passion, it may be rage. It most certainly will be both that drive you and your career forward.
Do not be afraid of what life gives you. Use it to spill your ambition everywhere and seize every opportunity with a brave and emboldened heart.
Bec Brideson’s book ‘Bind Spots: How to Uncover and Attract the Fastest Emerging Economy’ is available on Amazon here.