Over the past week, a high-profile lawsuit has ignited conversations about whether the advertising industry has really come a long way from Mad Men depictions of sexism and racial discrimination in the business.
On March 10, the global communications officer for ad agency J. Walter Thompson filed a lawsuit claiming that the agency's global CEO, Gustavo Martinez, made comments disparaging women, Jews and African-Americans. On Thursday, WPP announced that Mr. Martinez "resigned in the best interest of the J. Walter Thompson Company."
JWT is owned by WPP, the world's largest marketing services holding company, and employs almost 10,000 people across 200 offices worldwide, including in Canada.
The claim filed in a New York court alleges that the communications executive, Erin Johnson, was unable to do her job portraying the agency in a positive way after witnessing Mr. Martinez's behaviour. The alleged incidents include Mr. Martinez saying that a female executive he disliked should be "hogtied" and "raped into submission"; saying he "hates" Jews; referring to black people as "monkeys"; and making sexually explicit comments to female staff. Mr. Martinez has denied the allegations, and they have not been proven in court.
The case has once again raised the issue of whether the advertising industry is doing enough to address issues of discrimination in its ranks – with some calling for more people to come forward and discuss their own experiences.
"Over the years I've spoken to women friends, and there have absolutely been cases of harassment, there have been scenarios like those laid out by Erin Johnson, where there's been a complete failure on the part of the agency to address it, there's been total unreceptivity to complaints, and that has forced women out of agencies and out of jobs," said Cindy Gallop, a former ad executive, who now works partly as an advertising and management consultant, as well as an advocate on issues such as portrayals of sexuality in media.
"I am calling on everybody in our industry to speak up," she said. "This is making our industry look worse than ever. All the headlines are, 'The Mad Men days are still here.' Absolutely. This is our industry's watershed moment. Do we want to change?"
Nancy Vonk, co-founder of Toronto-based leadership consulting firm Swim, calls advertising "an industry famous for bias." When she was co-chief creative officer of WPP-owned agency Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto, she publicly criticised WPP worldwide creative director Neil French, after he said at an event in Toronto that "women don't make it to the top because they don't deserve to," calling them "crap" and prone to "wimp out and go suckle something."
In response to the JWT allegations, Ms. Vonk suggested that agencies need to solicit anonymous feedback company-wide, asking employees to inform them about incidents of bias or other problems they have encountered. Such feedback could help inform the kind of changes that are needed, both on gender issues and issues of racial discrimination.
"Many leaders [would] be jolted by realities that may be well out of view," she said. "… If employees can be made to feel safe to come forward with their bad experiences, with systems in place that assure swift, fair and appropriate resolution, then the kind of behaviours we're hearing about at JWT can be nipped in the bud."
Some point to a lack of diversity in leadership positions that makes advertising – like many industries – a field dominated largely by white men. Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, which addresses how few women are elevated to the role of creative director in agencies, has argued that this lack of diversity can lead to a more narrow perspective on the world reflected in advertising at large.
This year, the conference introduced a certification program evaluating whether agencies that want to encourage more diversity in their ranks are taking the right steps to foster change. Analysis includes each agency's maternity and paternity leave policies, depictions of gender in ad work, and how they historically handle incidents of sexual harassment.
"It is not enough to simply have a policy about sexual harassment. There needs to be a plan in place for precisely how complaints will be handled," Ms. Gordon said. "…We're hopeful that this recent turn of events will wake agencies up to the fact that how they enforce and uphold key policies is as important as merely having policies in place."
WPP has hired law firm Proskauer Rose LLP to conduct an investigation into Ms. Johnson's complaint. The company is declining to address any of the specific allegations until that investigation is completed.
"Employees have been told consistently and reliably that the rules at the firm, no different than most other places, are clear: that there is no tolerance for any supervisor who creates a hostile workplace, for bigotry or discrimination," said Stephen Labaton, president of WPP-owned PR firm Finsbury, which is handling communications for JWT.