Hill & Knowlton, Weber Shandwick Settle Suit

Dispute Centered Around Poached 'Confidential Information, Clients and Employees'

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WPP's Hill & Knowlton Strategies and Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick have settled a six-month dispute in which Weber Shandwick requested a temporary restraining order against H&K; its chief operating officer, Ken Luce; and Exec VP Jody Venturoni. The IPG shop alleged that the former Weber Shandwick employees stole "confidential information, clients and employees."

Neither firm would disclose the details of the settlement at this time.

Documents filed in the District Court of Dallas County on Jan. 18 stated: "This action arises out of Defendants' unlawful and deceitful misappropriation of Plaintiff Weber Shandwick's confidential information and trade secrets as part of a predatory assault against Plaintiff Weber Shandwick intended to damage Weber Shandwick's operations in the Southwest United States and beyond by , among other things, stealing confidential information, clients and employees."

Ms. Venturoni, who had been at Weber Shandwick for 15 years, left in December 2011 to join the WPP firm's Dallas office. Mr. Luce, who had also been at Weber Shandwick for 15 years, joined H&K in January 2011. He had spent the majority of his time in the firm's Dallas office.

Additional senior-level employees who recently left Weber Shandwick to join H&K include: Senior VP Mike Flanagan, Senior VP Anne Tramer, Senior VP Chris Cruddock, Senior VP-Creative Director Ken Maxwell and Creative Director David Johnson.

Around this time, Texas-based client Omni Hotels shifted its business from Weber Shandwick to H&K. An Omni spokeswoman said that the shift was unrelated to the lawsuit.

These additions also coincided with structural changes at the firm. In January 2011, WPP merged H&K with sibling agency Public Strategies, and early this year Hill & Knowlton rebranded as Hill & Knowlton Strategies.

Mr. Luce told Ad Age : "I'm very glad this is behind me -- Hill & Knowlton, Jody and Weber Shandwick. At the end of the day, settling is better than asking clients, friends and employees of both firms to have to be in the middle of something [like this]."

Ms. Venturoni, who as part of the settlement was asked to publicly apologize for taking documents from her former employer, added: "I agreed to make a statement in an effort to settle this case. I don't want other employees and clients to be dragged through this process."

In conjunction with the settlement, Ms. Venturoni released the following statement: "During my last year of employment with Weber Shandwick and immediately after my resignation, I took confidential information belonging to Weber Shandwick. I shared some of this information with employees at Hill & Knowlton. This information has since been returned to Weber Shandwick or destroyed. Weber Shandwick took justified legal action to protect its own business interests and those of its clients. We have reached a confidential settlement of this matter." In addition, Hill & Knowlton stated: "We regret the circumstances that led Weber Shandwick to take legal action against H&K and certain of its employees. We understand Weber Shandwick took this action to protect its business interests. We have reached a confidential settlement of these matters."

The initial documents from January outlined Ms. Venturoni's alleged role in the dispute: "Venturoni, while employed as the president of Weber Shandwick's Southwest Region, abused her position by working against Weber Shandwick's best interests and improperly copying and transferring to her personal possession Weber Shandwick's confidential information and trade secrets. The nonpublic and highly confidential information wrongly taken by Venturoni includes, among other documents, client financial negotiations and projections for 2012."

According to Ms. Venutroni, many of the documents in question were those that she had stored on her personal computer and in her personal Gmail account while working at the agency.

Elisabeth Rutledge, senior VP in H&K's Dallas office, said: "We are glad that this settlement will put an end to Weber Shandwick's lawsuit. Because our primary focus is our clients, we welcome a resolution to this distraction. Our strong Hill & Knowlton Strategies team continues to work hard for our growing list of clients around the world."

Weber Shandwick issued the following statement: "We are extremely disappointed by the actions of Ken Luce and Jody Venturoni, but we are pleased with the conditions and terms of the settlement."

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