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

Vice Carrot Creative company history timelineSamantha 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. 

RELATED: A list of high-profile men accused of sexual harassment and misconduct:

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High-profile men accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct
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High-profile men accused of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein is accused of sexually assaulting or harassing dozens of women, including a number of well-known celebrities, over the past several decades.

(REUTERS/Gus Ruelas)

Matt Lauer was fired from 'Today' after multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct that allegedly included giving a co-worker a sex toy and dropping his pants in front of a female employee in his office.

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Actor Jeffrey Tambor has been accused of sexual assault by two women from the Amazon series, "Transparent."  

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Eleven women have come forward accusing President Donald Trump of unwanted touching or kissing. Trump has called the sexual harassment claims 'fake news.'

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Sen. Al Franken is accused of kissing and groping a woman without her consent during a United Service Organizations (USO) tour in 2006.

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Director Woody Allen has been accused of sexual assault by his daughter, Dylan Farrow. She says she experienced inappropriate behavior by her adoptive father on several occasions.

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Hundreds of women accused longtime Hollywood writer and director James Toback of sexual harassment.

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Comedian Louis C.K. has been accused of forcing women to watch him masturbate, according to the New York Times.

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Director Bret Ratner has been accused of sexual harassment by several women, including actresses Olivia Munn and Natasha Henstridge.

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Actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of making a sexual advance towards him when he was 14 years old.

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Roger Ailes, the former president of Fox News Channel, was accused of sexually harassing former anchor Gretchen Carlson and several other women from the network.

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Several women accused TV host Charlie Rose of sexual misconduct, including groping and lewd phone calls.

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Bill Cosby has faced sexual assault allegations from about 60 women, including several women who claim he drugged them.

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Four women, including several that were also fellow Scientologists, have accused actor Danny Masterson of sexual assault, according to HuffPost.

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Mark Schwahn, the former "One Tree Hill" showrunner, was accused of sexual harassment by a large number of the show's cast and crew.

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Roy Moore faced multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with underaged girls.

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Bill Clinton faced numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct while he was president of the United States, with accusers including Juanita Broaddrick, who accused him of rape, Kathleen Willey who said he groped her and Paula Jones who said he exposed himself to her without consent.

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Actor Casey Affleck settled lawsuits out of court wth two women who accused him of sexual harassment.  

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Bill O'Reilly has reportedly made numerous settlements with women who accused him of sexual harassment.

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Anthony Weiner, a former Democratic congressman was sentenced to 21 months in prison in September 2017 after pleading guilty to sexting a teenage girl.

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Veteran journalist Mark Halperin has been accused of sexually harassing women while he worked at ABC News.

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Singer R. Kelly is accused of holding women against their will in houses in Illinois and Georgia in a reported 'sex cult.'

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Former Fox Host Eric Bolling was accused of sending unsolicited lewd text messages to female colleagues.

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Director Roman Polanski fled the US after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Several other women have also come forward to accuse him of sexual assault.

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Chef John Besh stepped down from the company he founded after female employees reported facing sexual harassment there. 

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Photographer Terry Richardson was labeled the 'Harvey Weinstein of Fashion' by the Sunday Times amid widespread accusations of sexual harassment by models.

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Singer Kesha accused Lukasz Gottwald aka Dr. Luke of drugging and sexually assaulting her on multiple occasions.

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Former champion boxer Mike Tyson was convicted of raping a Miss Black America contestant in 1992. 

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Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar has been accused of sexual abuse by dozens of his former patients and athletes.

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Music mogul L.A. Reid left his position as Epic Records CEO/Chairman in 2017 amid harassment claims by a female assistant.

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Amazon Studios chief Roy Price resigned following reports that he harassed a producer and ignored an actress' allegation of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein.

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Several women have accused former President George H.W. Bush of groping them during photo ops.

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Chris Savino (right), creator of  'The Loud House' was suspended by Nickelodeon after being accused of making unwanted advances toward multiple women.

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Actor Steven Seagal was accused of sexual misconduct by Inside Edition's chief investigative correspondent Lisa Guerrero.

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Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director of National Public Radio, was accused of inappropriate conduct with two women in 1990s.

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Dustin Hoffman was accused of sexually harassing a production assistant when he was 48 and she was a high school senior.

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Jeremy Piven was accused by actress Ariane Bellamar of groping her on two separate occasions. Piven 'unequivocally' denied the allegations.

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Ben Affleck apologized for acting 'inappropriately' towards Hilarie Burton during an appearance on MTV's "Total Request Live" in 2003.

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Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct by a woman he went on a date with.

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Andy Dick was accused of sexual harassment and misconduct on set, including groping people’s genitals, unwanted kissing/licking and sexual propositions.

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Rep. Ruben Kihuen, (D) Nevada, was accused of making repeated, unwanted propositions for dates and sex to a woman that once worked on his campaign.

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Actor Ed Westwick was accused by actress Kristina Cohen of raping her in his home.

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David Guillod, producer of 'Atomic Blonde,' is accused of drugging and sexually assaulting several woman.

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Andrew Kreisberg, the showrunner for "Supergirl," was suspended in November 2017 amid numerous sexual harassment allegations by members of his staff.

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Actor Tom Sizemore was reportedly told to leave a film set in 2003 after an 11-year-old actress told her mother that he had touched her genitals.

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Steve Jurvetson left his own venture capital firm after allegations of sexual harassment

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A former model accused George Takei of sexually assaulting him 36 years ago.

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Olympic gold medalist Hope Solo accused former FIFA president Sepp Blatter of sexually assaulted her at an award ceremony in 2013.

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A former writer for 'Mad Men' said the show's creator Matthew Weiner told her that she owed it to him to let him see her naked.

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Ron Jeremy has been accused of sexually assaulting more than a dozen women and the allegations span more than 30 years.

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Multiple women accused producer Adam Fields of touching them inappropriately and sexually propositioning them.

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Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has been accused of unwanted sexual advances by former staffers.

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John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, was accused of crossing the line with employees, including unwanted hugs.

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Singer Nick Carter was accused of rape by a former member of the all-girl teen band Dream, Melissa Schuman.

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A singer accused billionaire Richard Branson of sexual assault during an event as his Necker Island in the Caribbean. Branson says he has no recollection of the matter.

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Talent agent Adam Venit is accused of grabbing actor Terry Crews' genitals.

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Jeordie White (aka Twiggy Ramirez), Marilyn Manson former longtime bassist, was accused of rape by singer Jessicka Addams.

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Lockhart Steele, Vox Media's editorial director was fired after a former employee accused him of sexual harassment.

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Producer Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein's brother, has also been accused of sexual harassment. 

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Jesse Lacey of  the band, Brand New, was accused of sexual misconduct, including soliciting nude photos from a teen girl in the past.

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Senior Correspondent for E! News Ken Baker California was accused of sexual harassment by two women.

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American film director Oliver Stone was accused of groping model and actress Carrie Stevens in the 1990s.

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Reporter Glenn Thrush was suspended by the New York Times after several women accused him of acting inappropriately when they were young journalists.

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Veteran radio host Garrison Keillor was fired by Minnesota Public Radio following claim of improper behavior.

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CNN producer Teddy Davis was fired after multiple accusations of harassment.

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Producer Russell Simmons stepped down from his companies following sexual assault and harassment accusations from two women.

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Longtime conductor James Levine was suspended by New York's Metropolitan Opera after sexual abuse claims.

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Dylan Howard, editor in chief of the National Enquirer, was accused of sexual misconduct by several former employees, including forcing them to watch porn and openly discussing his sexual partners.

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Harold Ford, Jr.

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Chef Mario Batali has been accused by multiple women of "inappropriate touching in a pattern of behavior that spans at least two decades."

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PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley's show was suspended amid misconduct allegations made against him.

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Former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb was fired from his job as an ESPN contributor amid accusations of sexual harassment by a wardrobe stylist at the network.

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Sen. Jeff Klein (D-New York), was accused of forcibly kissing a former female staffer back in 2015. 

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Ross Levinsohn, Los Angeles Times CEO and publisher, has reportedly been a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits and would rate the "hotness" of his female colleagues, according to a report by NPR.

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A woman accused magician David Copperfield of drugging, sexually assaulting her when she was teen model in the 80s, according to The Wrap.

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James Franco was accused by several women of sexually inappropriate behavior. He was also criticized for wearing a "Time's Up" pin to the Golden Globes hours before the accusations against him surfaced.

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Barry Lubin, also known as Grandma the clown, resigned from Big Apple Circus after admitting to pressuring a 16-year-old girl into posing for pornographic photos in 2004.

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Arizona Wildcats head football coach Rich Rodriguez was fired amid troubling off-field allegations. His former administrative assistant says Rodriguez inappropriately grabbed and touched her. 

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President Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of sexual assault by pro-Trump singer Joy Villa. She claims he hit her on the buttocks during an event at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

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Steve Wynn, Chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts, has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of peple. The Wall Street Journal the casino mogul regularly pressured employees to perform sex acts.

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Music exec and 'The Four' judge Charlie Walk was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee. Life Lab founder Tristan Coopersmith penned an open letter about Walk in January claiming he sent her lewd comment and cornered her in the bedroom he shared with his wife.

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Several women filed sexual harassment complaints against Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle, according to the Washington Post.

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Actor Scott Baio, was accused of molesting is former 'Charles in Charge' co-star Nicole Eggert when she was a minor.

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Paris Dennard, GOP commentator

(Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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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.

Vice Carrot QuoteBusiness Insider

"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.

Vice Carrot quote 2Business Insider

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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