Two women formerly employed by Hyundai’s ad agency Innocean USA filed suit last month against the company in California’s Orange County Superior Court, seeking damages and jury trials.
Their claims include negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful termination, gender discrimination and statutory assault and battery. When combined with two earlier suits reported by Adweek in March, four women have now sued the agency over the past year.
Innocean’s lawyers have not filed a response in either case. “Innocean does not comment on active litigation,” said a company representative.
‘A rowdy college fraternity’
Lawyers for Carol Lombard Seelig, the agency’s former vp and director of integrated production, filed one suit on Aug. 22. It alleges that Seelig was subjected to a hostile work environment by now-former chief creative officer Eric Springer, who is named as a co-defendant in the suit. Seelig also claims that after nearly three years at the agency, she felt pushed out following a medical leave.
According to someone close to the matter, Seelig was replaced by a freelancer named Victoria Guenier, a former colleague of Springer who would later go on to sue him and Innocean for sexual harassment and wrongful termination.
Seelig, described by a former colleague as “well-liked” and respected in the industry, worked at several agencies, including David&Goliath and Y&R, before heading to Innocean in mid-2014 to lead its production team. The following year, she was diagnosed with Laing distal myopathy, a genetic muscle disorder that affects one’s mobility.
The suit claims Innocean’s culture “rapidly devolved into that of a rowdy college fraternity” after the agency brought on Springer as CCO in January 2016 “despite the fact that he was generally known within the advertising industry as a bully.” It alleges that Seelig and other employees were “pressured to engage in excessive alcohol use” at events, that Springer repeatedly demeaned her by loudly demanding that she explain why she had to walk with a crutch, and that he had a habit of making “demeaning comments about women generally.”
Specifically, the suit mentions the internal Velvet Hammer award, which Springer created soon after taking the job and allegedly named in reference to a slang term describing a sexual act. (Urban Dictionary lists several definitions, ranging from a sex act to a female leader who is good at her job).
A former Innocean employee told Adweek the award was “supposed to recognize those who had gone above and beyond to push through innovative work.” The object itself, which stood on display in the office lobby, consisted of an upside-down purple hammer. Adweek’s source and the lawsuit claim that multiple employees, including Seelig, objected to the award as a sexist, phallic symbol and suggested its name and appearance be changed.
A party close to the agency provided the image below.
According to the suit, Springer did not respond well to this criticism and “retaliated against [Seelig]” by changing her job duties to require more travel in addition to “demand[ing] that she attend an all-night production immediately prior to a business trip to Chicago.”
Seelig claims she reported this incident to HR, which declined to investigate. She went on short-term disability leave in May 2016 to seek treatment for her condition and eventually resigned from Innocean in February 2017 “due to the hostile work environment imposed upon” her, according to the suit.
Springer declined to comment for this story. He and the agency agreed to part ways after the Guenier case was settled in July.
Seelig is asking for unspecified damages due to emotional distress, disability discrimination and negligence.
Allegations of assault and battery
Lawyers representing Innocean’s former media investment supervisor Joan Veronica Baker also filed a lawsuit in the same court on Aug. 17. It names the agency, its South Korean parent company, and vp, director of media consolidation Rebecca Rogers as defendants, accusing Rogers of a range of violations.
In the lawsuit, Baker says the agency hired her in November 2016 and concealed the fact that it only intended to bring her on for a short-term project and “work [her] intensively” before treating her as an “expendable” asset.
The suit also claims that Rogers, Baker’s manager, forced her to work until midnight and on weekends and later “embarked on a vicious campaign to drive [her] out from the company.” It describes three alleged instances of abuse, including one in which the vp “forcefully grabbed [Baker’s] arm, swung [her] around in her seat” and yelled, “This isn’t your meeting!” during a conference room gathering attended by agency and department leaders. The suit makes the case that the September 2017 episode amounted to statutory assault and battery.
Rogers declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Baker reported Rogers to HR and requested a transfer multiple times during the 15 months she spent at Innocean. In the suit, she alleges that HR promised to send Rogers to management classes but didn’t as the intimidation and bullying escalated.
Baker went on medical leave for anxiety attacks, headaches and asthma in March 2018 after Innocean USA CEO Steve Jun refused a final transfer request, according to the legal filing. She felt “forced to resign” the following month “in an effort to preserve her mental and physical well-being as well as to avoid having further interact [sic] with Rogers,” the suit states.
The document posits that the company would have “certainly taken immediate disciplinary action” had Baker’s supervisor been a man rather than a woman.
A time of transition
According to a source close to the agency, Innocean leadership sent out an email this week asking employees to refrain from discussing the lawsuits with journalists or other outside parties.
The law firms representing Seelig and Baker have not returned phone calls seeking comment.
Contacts at Innocean’s corporate headquarters in Seoul, South Korea have not responded to multiple emails regarding the cases filed against the agency’s U.S. subsidiary over the past year.
After Adweek broke the news of the suit pending against Innocean in March, the agency launched an internal investigation and hired The 3% Movement, a for-profit group that conducts internal evaluations of agencies based on gender and racial diversity, maternity leave policies and other factors, then provides certifications based on certain benchmarks.
“3% is actively engaged with Innocean in 3% Certification through a time of transition,” said founder and CEO Kat Gordon. “Our priority is in helping amplify the voice of employees about what is working and what needs to change. We’re heartened by efforts on that front.”
The previous suits filed against Innocean within the past year are now closed. Lawyers for Victoria Guenier, who accused Springer and the agency of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination, reached a settlement in July. Onetime account director Catherine Bennett, who claimed she was wrongfully fired after reporting former vp of customer relations management Michael Sachs for harassment, filed a notice of settlement in her case on June 27.
“Regarding the Catherine Bennett matter, it has been resolved,” said an agency spokesperson.