At Vice Media's once high-flying ad agency Carrot, a founder is out and insiders describe a hostile culture toward women
- Founded in a Connecticut basement in 2005, digital ad agency Carrot Creative was a success story — eventually being acquired by Vice in 2013.
- As of Tuesday, Carrot cofounder and Vice digital chief Mike Germano is no longer with the company following an investigation into sexual misconduct.
- Current and former employees at Carrot have spoken with Business Insider and described a workplace that, they said, was littered with sexism and misogyny.
- The incidents they have described range from being casually told to look pretty and dress well for client meetings to being pulled into Germano’s lap and facing lewd comments.
- The acute power imbalances at Carrot also impeded women from ascending to leadership roles, several former staffers said.
Carrot Creative was a success story.
The digital advertising agency was founded by three college students in a Connecticut basement in 2005, and it hustled its way to the top, eventually being bought by Vice Media in 2013 for about $15 million.
But Carrot’s company culture apparently never really left that basement.
On Tuesday, Carrot cofounder and Vice digital chief Mike Germano left the company following an investigation into sexual misconduct. Carrot is now going to be folded into Virtue, Vice’s in-house creative agency.
Germano's removal followed a New York Times investigation in December that described Vice Media's problematic culture for women. The report included two specific allegations against the executive.
Shortly after the Times story ran, Germano was suspended.
Since then, current and former employees at Carrot have spoken with Business Insider and described a workplace that, they said, was littered with sexism and misogyny.
Nine women described instances of sexual misconduct that they experienced, witnessed, or were told about, including lewd language used toward women in public settings and unwanted physical contact.
That sexism — which, they said, has run rampant throughout Carrot — may have flowed from Germano at the top.
"He could have said, 'I acknowledge my mistakes, I see very clearly that my naïveté hurt other people, and I regret not putting policies in place to protect against such actions.' But he didn’t do anyone any favors in how he handled the recent news he's involved in," Gabrielle Schaefer, who worked at Carrot as director of communications, told Business Insider.
Schaefer said she left Carrot after an encounter with Germano in 2014. She said at a company event he pulled her onto his lap. Schaefer said she complained to HR the next day and remained unsettled by the experience and eventually decided to leave the company.
In an email to Business Insider, Germano said that reports that he had been fired were "not true at all" and that he had evidence to refute some of the allegations made against him. He did not respond to further requests for comment.
For its part, Vice Media declined to provide details on Germano's departure, saying only that he was no longer with the company. A Virtue representative provided the following statement:
"The behavior described is unacceptable and a disservice to the talented employees at Carrot and the award-winning work they do every day. Given all that we are doing to take action on complaints like these and transform our workplace culture, we hope that the integration of Carrot into Virtue will give Carrot employees confidence that they’re part of a company at which they can thrive."
A boys' club
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
Schaefer said she feels Germano never really understood the implications of the culture he'd created at Carrot. Former employees described Carrot's culture as "douchey and patriarchal," "belittling and disrespectful," and "broey and frat-like."
Female staffers were routinely assigned tasks outside their remit, while a group of men — internally known as the "Core Four" — called the shots. They were Germano, cofounder and chief experience officer Chris Petescia, former Carrot president and current chief operating officer of Virtue Ryan Mack, and current Carrot president Adam Katzenbach.
Germano was a towering personality, the women said. It wasn't unusual for him to casually make comments seen as inappropriate, either.
Averie Timm, a former executive assistant and copywriter, described an incident where he shouted "Hey, you!" at her across the office and demanded that she go get him whiskey, Red Bull, and a box of tissues. Stunned, she did as he asked, she said, but she shook up all the Red Bull cans before stocking the fridge out of spite.
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"I've never experienced a culture that was a boys' club to that degree," Timm, who worked at the agency for almost four years, told Business Insider. "It was not only prominent at Carrot, but in fact was widely celebrated."
A current female employee defended Germano, saying his magnetic, larger-than-life personality could sometimes lack a filter.
"He's unfortunately learning the hard way why that’s a problem," she said. "But that bravado and personality has also been one of his biggest attributes as a leader."
This preceded the acquisition by Vice, which is widely known for its risqué culture, former employees told Business Insider. If anything, when Vice acquired Carrot, those running Carrot took it as a stamp of approval.
"Both companies sought to define culture with their own rules," Schaefer wrote in a Medium post. "They don't break them; they make them."
Another former employee said: "I believe that the culture was always this way and that they only got more emboldened with the Vice acquisition. The acquisition told them that everything they'd been doing was exactly right."
Female staffers said they were casually told to look pretty or dress well for client meetings, or were subjected to banter wherein male leaders would debate whether a female coworker's breasts were real or enhanced. But it didn’t end there.
Two other women shared their personal accounts of misconduct at the company with Business Insider. A former director at Carrot said she was asked by a male group-account director when he could "suck on those titties" at her farewell party, before being forcibly kissed on the mouth.
Two other employees who were told about the incident separately described it to Business Insider. The account director was fired from his job after the woman complained.
"I had warned them about him in advance, that he was an incorrigible person," she told Business Insider. "He had overstepped his boundaries with inappropriate comments before."
Timm added that she had barely stepped foot into the agency when she encountered her first uncomfortable situation.
During an interview with Germano, she said, he poured her a glass of whiskey and then asked if she had a boyfriend. Timm said he also asked whether she was smarter than her mother and whether she had "daddy issues" after she had told him that her boyfriend was older than she was.
"I remember thinking that it was really inappropriate and really weird," Timm said. "I should have taken it as a warning sign. But it I really badly wanted a job, so I let it slide."
But this encounter does not seem to have been an isolated one.
"I try to only hire girls with daddy issues," Schaeffer said Germano had once told her. Two other employees said Germano often said this, too, suggesting that he thought these candidates could be more easily controlled in the workplace.
Not always a problem
Staffers who complained didn't always view Carrot's culture as problematic.
Like many ad agencies, Carrot was full of young people just out of college. Long work hours and perks like beer and pizza meant that staffers regularly socialized and drank together. "It was the perfect place to transition out of college and into the real world," a former employee said.
It was big on community too. When employees joined, they were enamored by how close everyone seemed to be and how committed to the tagline "Hustle. Team. Adventure." they were.
"One of the things that drew me was how diverse they were," a current employee working in account management told Business Insider. "They hire eclectic groups of people from all walks of life."
One of Carrot's many new-hire rituals apparently involved the person leading the entire office in a chant, something that might more closely resemble a football-stadium mob or a frat-hazing ritual than an agency's onboarding activity.
Asif Khan, a former head of strategy at the agency, wrote that he seized the opportunity to make the entire office chant his name when he joined in 2014, which he detailed in a blog post.
"I must've sensed this was literally my only opportunity to feel like Rocky and jumped at it," he wrote.
And this wasn’t entirely an accident. Germano made no qualms about saying how he had modeled Carrot's culture after the group dynamics of cults, staffers said. He apparently even gave a presentation on the topic at an industry conference in Arizona in 2013, according to copies of the slides posted online.
"I, admittedly, was often caught up in it all and surfing the same wave of cultish individualism," Schaefer wrote on Medium. "I even actually believed that the abnormal work behaviors were essential to our process, or special because they were dreamed up by those never jaded by another job before."
An industry problem
Cultural issues in the advertising industry clearly extend beyond Carrot. The kind of behavior portrayed in "Mad Men" — the hit AMC show about male-dominated advertising firms in an earlier era — is alive and well at some agencies on Madison Avenue. It’s hardly a secret to those in the business, but in recent years the behavior has begun to seep out publicly.
J. Walter Thompson's chief communications officer, Erin Johnson, for example, filed an explosive lawsuit against its global CEO, Gustavo Martinez, in 2016. She accused him of routinely making racist and sexist slurs.
Other leading agency executives, including the Martin Agency's Joe Alexander, Publicis Seattle’s Andrew Christou, and Droga5’s Ted Royer, have all unceremoniously departed from their agencies amid allegations of sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Carrot was neither an anomaly nor the worst, the women said. But that doesn’t make any of it appropriate.
Cindy Gallop, a former advertising executive and entrepreneur, has been calling on people in the ad industry to share their stories of sexual harassment since the news about Harvey Weinstein broke. She said she's gotten hundreds of responses since she put the call out last fall, and that sexual harassment is endemic in the industry.
"I always knew that it was a problem, but I never realized it was this bad," Gallop told Business Insider. "I am horrified and disgusted at the scale, scope, and the timelines."
Equality is a distant dream until sexual harassment is stamped out, she said.
No women in leadership
The acute power imbalances at Carrot contributed toward its toxic work environment and impeded women from ascending to leadership roles, several former staffers said.
"Sexual assault was just the most egregious manifestation of the manipulative culture," Caroline Tseng, an associate director of strategy who worked at the agency for two years, told Business Insider. "But it absolutely occurred in many different ways."
Tseng, who worked at Carrot until 2017, said she felt this way when she didn’t receive credit for work she was doing and endured a couple of humiliating professional exchanges. She recalled a client meeting with Germano, who she said kicked her under the table to stop her from talking. She turned to look at him and found him glaring at her.
She said she was more or less running her department for a period of at least six months after her boss, Asif Khan, left — but without being given a higher title, raise, or promotion. She also said she asked for a formal written review to try to see where she could improve, but never got one, despite asking time and again.
At least two other former Carrot employees echoed Tseng's views. At Carrot, women rose up the career ladder only to a point, they said. There were a handful of director-level spots held by women, but the C-Suite was almost exclusively reserved for men.
Germano was also quick to blame the women, saying on more than one occasion that he couldn't hire women as leaders because they always leave or end up quitting, three women told Business Insider.
"Women are just not in the consideration set," a former employee said. "I wasn’t either."
Glassdoor, the anonymous workplace-review site, includes some accounts from current and former employees detailing negative experiences at Carrot.
The sentiment wasn’t limited to women. Steve Brauntuch, a group-account director who worked at Carrot from 2015 to 2017, said he felt personally attacked by Germano, calling him an "arrogant and obnoxious bully."
There was a noticeable change in the environment, he said, when Germano came back to run Carrot’s daily operations in the fall of 2016 after spending some time at Vice’s headquarters as its chief digital officer.
"Everything took a turn for the worse when Mike returned — it became a toxic place to work at," Brauntuch said. "Carrot no longer remained the open, meritocratic democracy it used to be and became an ego trip that permeated all the way down."
Management tried to address issues and grievances, but, some said, their efforts sometimes backfired. An executive-led panel on feminism with Glassbreakers CEO Eileen Carey, which followed a number of sexism complaints, was widely perceived as "tone-deaf."
Similarly, when Germano held a company meeting to address a particularly heavy flood of negative Glassdoor reviews, he joked that he would create a dedicated website for complaints called MikeGermanoSucks.com for people to submit anonymous comments instead. The site, which was actually created by the developer team, was seen by some as a "highly insecure and defensive" response.
The steps ahead
Amid all the backlash, Carrot's parent company, Vice, said it was intent on making the culture better and was already taking steps to prevent workplace problems.
Last summer, for instance, it revamped its workplace-training programs and also committed itself to implementing pay parity by enlisting Columbia Law School’s Suzanne Goldberg to guide the process, a representative told Business Insider.
The company has also expanded its human-resources department and set a goal for 50-50 representation of women and men at all levels of employment by 2020. It has also established Diversity and Inclusion Employee Councils across its offices, which consist of staff members who have volunteered to help the company to improve.
It recently began mandatory anti-harassment training and has clarified its employee handbook, which carried its infamous nontraditional-workplace agreement that made some female employees feel as if they couldn't speak out against sexual harassment at the company.
While some of these changes may seem long overdue, they are positive steps in the right direction, the women said.
"You can't erase the hurt of the past," said Schaefer. "But every woman wants acknowledgment and change for the future."
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