Anonymous Instagram account Diet Madison Avenue sued for defamation

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Lawsuit
Lawsuit

For months, an anonymous Instagram account has taken aim at some of the biggest names in advertising, with a goal of exposing sexual harassment and discrimination at ad agencies. Now, one of the men who was fired after his name appeared on the account is suing for defamation.

Former Crispin Porter & Bogusky Boulder Chief Creative Officer Ralph Watson has filed suit against Diet Madison Avenue, claiming defamatory statements posted on the account led to his wrongful termination from the agency.

The suit, filed Tuesday in the Superior Court of California in the County of Los Angeles, seeks no less than $10 million in damages in addition to other costs and damages. The suit names Diet Madison Avenue and other defendants listed as "Jane Doe 1," "Jane Doe 2" and "Does 3 through 100." The suit claims defamation, intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional interference with prospective economic relations and negligent interference with prospective economic relations.

News of the suit was reported first by Campaign U.S.

The Diet Madison Avenue account has drawn broad attention in the advertising industry for naming men it claims have engaged in sexual harassment. After their names were posted on the account, big-name creatives including Droga5 chief creative officer Ted Royer; Martin Agency Chief Creative Officer Joe Alexander; and former Wieden & Kennedy London chief strategy officer Paul Colman were separated from their agencies.

The lawsuit says the plaintiff believes the DMA account is run by at least 17 individuals "with assistance from at least another 42 individuals." The suit lists Instagram's privacy policy, which states the platform may access, preserve and share a user's information in response to a legal request or when Instagram believes that is necessary to detect, prevent and address fraud and other illegal activity.

The suit says that in January Diet Madison Avenue published statements about Watson, claiming he was a sexual harasser. On February 2, the suit says that as a "direct result" of what it calls "false statements, pressure and interference," Watson was wrongfully terminated by the MDC-owned agency "despite being an exemplary performer during his entire tenure with the agency."

The suit says that the Diet Madison Avenue account has not identified any of the women who it claims were harassed by him, or "provided even a scintilla of evidence or proof supporting any allegations of harassment or other 'predatory' misconduct.'"

Watson "has had his life destroyed wholly on the basis of defendants' patently false statements," the suit says. It adds that Watson has not been able to find work in the industry since his termination, recently losing a "highly lucrative freelance engagement solely because of the damage to his reputation and/or the real fear of retaliation by DMA or its supporters."

Watson joined CP&B's Boulder office in 2014 as its chief creative officer, coming from BBDO where he led Bud Light. Formerly, he was at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in Detroit, overseeing Chevrolet. He has also worked at other agencies including Leonard/Monahan, Team One, Arnold and Saatchi New York.

In an open letter on his lawyer's website, Watson responded to the allegations.

"I have never, in my 24-year career, sexually harassed anyone," he wrote. He likened his plight to that of Odysseus in Homer's "The Odyssey," in which the protagonist must choose to sail between a seven-headed monster or a whirlpool.

"Now I am left with only two choices – staying silent or speaking out," Watson writes. He says choice one means "Staying silent in the face of unsubstantiated false rumors and watching as the ship sinks under the weight of whispers" or "choosing to speak up and risk bringing even further defamation, attack, and harm onto myself, especially considering DMA's threats to 'take down any challengers.'"

He continues, "Yes, I've had a one-sided trial by social media, but now I'm looking for actual justice in a real trial by bringing DMA into a public forum and requiring them to state their claims, and more importantly, their supporting evidence. I'm here to tell you they won't be able to do that. It's one thing to make reckless and anonymous accusations. It's quite another to back them up with evidence in a court of law."

Watson's lawyer, Michael Ayotte of the Law Offices of Michael W. Ayotte in Hermosa Beach, California, said Watson is deferring comment to his lawyer and his open letter.

"My client's hard-earned career and reputation have been destroyed by Diet Madison Avenue's defamatory actions. He is adamant that he has never sexually harassed anyone. Yet he has lost everything without any actual allegations of misconduct being brought against him (either named or anonymously), much less any supporting evidence," Ayotte said in an emailed statement.

"He and I support equal rights for all and believe no one should be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. However, Diet Madison Avenue's way is not the right way, and their tactics are doing more harm to the #me-too movement, than good," the attorney continued. "This case is needed to shed light on the dark side of DMA – how one man can lose everything over false and unsupported Instagram posts."

Diet Madison Avenue told Ad Age in a message sent via Instagram that the account has legal representation and is "wondering why Ralph Watson isn't taking up this issue with CPB." The statement added that "it will be fascinating to see how Instagram deals with this issue -- and how they deal with users' privacy and freedom of speech on their platform."

The statement adds that "ultimately we believe it's a freedom of speech issue." Diet Madison Avenue wrote it has not engaged in any criminal activities and has published "third-party information as is."

MDC Partners and CP&B declined to comment. Instagram didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

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