JWT’s Parent Company Stands Behind CEO as Full List of Harassment Allegations Comes to Light

Lawsuit details 'unending stream of racist and sexist comments'

Erin Johnson's career had been on a constant upward trajectory for 20 years, culminating in her being named to her current job as chief communications officer for global agency JWT. She worked closely with the top executives and was, by her own account, frequently praised by the company and honored with industry awards as a top PR personality.

All that changed with the arrival of Gustavo Martinez, first as JWT's global president in 2014, and then as its new worldwide chairman and CEO—and also Johnson's boss—on Jan. 1, 2015, according to a discrimination lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court this week by Johnson against her agency.

"Martinez has made it impossible for her to do her job," claims the lawsuit, which details several instances of alleged harassment and insensitivity by the CEO against Johnson and other employees. "Presenting JWT both internally and externally in a positive light has become virtually impossible given Martinez's apparent comfort in making racist and sexist slurs, even on tape." 

J. Walter Thompson's parent company, WPP, is so far standing behind Martinez and says its internal investigation found no evidence that would back up Johnson's litany of claims of racial insensitivity, rape jokes and workplace retaliation.  

According to a memo sent by WPP to top executives and shared with clients, "WPP's lawyers have been conducting an enquiry into previous correspondence on these matters since February 25 and have found nothing, as yet, to substantiate these charges."

In a statement this morning, JWT's official response is: "We received the lawsuit on Thursday and take these kinds of allegations very seriously. Gustavo Martinez has asserted that the allegations are false. Following our standard practice, we are undertaking a thorough review of the matter and will comment further at the appropriate time and in the course of the litigation."

Adweek has acquired the full 28-page document outlining Johnson's complaint, which may be downloaded here or viewed via the embed below:

When news of the suit broke yesterday, WPP issued a statement attributed to Martinez in which he called the accusations "outlandish" and promised to prove his innocence in court.

Among the charges are accusations that Martinez repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements. At least one of those examples was loosely corroborated by Campaign U.S. editor Douglas Quenqua, who recalled an interview in which, before the conversation was being recorded, Martinez said he had moved out of New York's Westchester County because it had "too many Jews."

Other revelations from the full documents include the assertion that Martinez made a point of "[distinguishing] between good rape and rape" in a meeting attended by more than 60 employees, including JWT's global head of human resources, and implied at the same event that other employees should "check all your luggage" after a party at a hotel nightclub the previous night that was "attended by mostly African American guests."

Johnson said that after complaining to Martinez about his comments making light of rape, he became angry, telling her "she was wrong" and that "American women are too sensitive."

Shortly after the conversation took place, her lawsuit says, the following exchange occured: "Martinez walked toward Johnson's desk, situated in an open seating plan directly across from the men's bathroom. In front of numerous employees, Martinez told Johnson to come to him so he could 'rape [her]' in the bathroom. He then grabbed Johnson around the neck with his arm and began laughing."

The suit also claims that Martinez regularly belittled female colleagues, calling them "too sensitive," "too bossy" and "too American." Johnson claims Martinez at one point "told an employee that a female senior global executive needed to be 'hogtied' and 'raped into submission.'"

Johnson's lawsuit says she made formal complaints to agency executives including JWT global chief talent officer Laura Agostini, who allegedly "witnessed firsthand some of Martinez's unlawful behavior" but chose not to address it. The suit reads, "Even though the Chief Talent Officer promised that she was 'addressing' Johnson's complaints, nothing has been done to remedy the situation. Instead, defendants have retaliated against Johnson by denying Johnson significant opportunities and reducing her compensation."

In what may be its most broadly damning statement, the suit reads: "As set forth below, contrary to JWT's carefully cultivated public image, Martinez created and defendants knowingly tolerated, an environment that is openly and notoriously hostile to female, African American, and Jewish employees."

The document then claims that "[Martinez] has subjected Johnson and other employees to an unending stream of racist and sexist comments as well as unwanted touching and other unlawful conduct."

Johnson claims that this behavior dates back to the period before Martinez was promoted to the global chairman and CEO position, alleging that he "grabbed [her] by the throat when directing her to complete a task" at a hotel during the 2014 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

Martinez also allegedly made repeated comments insulting the appearance of Johnson and other female employees, making "a snide remark" about her dietary habits soon after she gave birth to her child.

In addition to his alleged racist remarks about Jews and African Americans, the suit also claims that Martinez referred to a customs agent as a "Guatemalan monkey face" in front of several agency leaders including JWT CEO of the Americas and head of digital worldwide Stefano Zunino, JWT New York president Lynn Power, and others.

As recently as February 2016, the suit alleges that Martinez complained about a lack of personal profiles in trade publications, arguing that rival agency McCann had received more positive coverage because the agency's chief communications officer, who he referred to as "the Jew," was better able to "work" the press. The filing claims that Martinez called a male colleague his "whore" at the same meeting.

The document proceeds to outline multiple instances in which Johnson says she raised concerns about Martinez's behavior with executives at both JWT and WPP in order to "avoid this type of public relations disaster" because she knew that "if his comments were publicized, JWT would suffer serious consequences, including losing important clients."

On Feb. 22, Johnson's attorney delivered a letter to JWT "advising them that Johnson believed she had been subjected to unlawful discrimination and retaliation." Soon after, the lawsuit says, she was placed on paid leave.

Martinez is scheduled to lead a session at the March 22 4A's annual conference in Miami, where his session was slated to touch on issues like the "immense marketing influence of Latinas." Nancy Hill, the group's president, has no comment about whether Martinez will still be part of the event. But sources speculate a decision will be made after the trade organization learns more about the allegations or if Martinez voluntarily withdraws from the program.

(UPDATE: As of March 12, Martinez has been removed from the 4A's agenda. Hill confirmed to Adweek that Gustavo Martinez will no longer be part of this year’s session.)

Adweek reporters have spoken to several of Martinez's former co-workers at agencies such as McCann Erickson and Ogilvy & Mather, where the most frequent response was shock. 

"Usually there's a pattern in situations like this, and there was no indication here," said one.

Added a female agency exec: "We're absolutely stunned—there was never even a whisper about anything like this from him." Still another top female former colleague said: "He was a terrific person to all people and always very in control of himself. We never saw any indication of this and we were really taken aback to hear it."

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.
Publish date: March 11, 2016 https://stage.adweek.com/brand-marketing/jwts-parent-company-stands-behind-ceo-full-list-harassment-allegations-comes-light-170142/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT