JWT Communications Exec Files Suit Against JWT and Its CEO for Racist, Sexist Comments

Suit Alleges Gustavo Martinez Made Remarks in Presence of Employees, Senior Execs and a Reporter

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An agency is once again being charged with racist and misogynistic behavior -- and this time it's JWT.

Gustavo Martinez
Gustavo Martinez Credit: JWT

A discrimination suit has been filed in Manhattan federal court against the WPP agency and its worldwide Chairman-CEO Gustavo Martinez by JWT's longtime communications executive Erin Johnson, claiming the executive made "racist and sexist slurs."

"As Chief Communications Officer, Johnson reports directly to the Worldwide Chairman and Chief Executive Officer ('CEO') and oversees global corporate communications for JWT, including both external and internal communications," the suit said. "Her career progressed without impediment until 2015, when JWT appointed Martinez as its Chair and CEO." The suit goes on to say that Ms. Johnson had difficulty maintaining her duties, particularly promoting the company. Promoting it "internally and externally in a positive light has become virtually impossible given Martinez's apparent comfort in making constant racist and sexist slurs, even on tape."

Ms. Johnson is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, though details were not provided.

The suit alleges that Mr. Martinez made extremely disparaging and racist comments, including in conversations with employees, senior execs and a reporter. According to the suit, he had "no hesitation in referring in conversations with employees, including senior JWT executives, or the media, to his dislike of the 'fucking Jews,' his refusal to go places where he would encounter the 'black monkeys' or 'apes' who don't know how to use computers,' or to his publicly asked questions about which female staff member he should rape.'"

The suit also said that Mr. Martinez grabbed Ms. Johnson by the throat and by the back of the neck, and that he also asked other employees leave the room so that he and Ms. Johnson could talk about "the sex." It also claims that Mr. Martinez said, in the presence of other people, "Come here [Johnson], so I can rape you in the bathroom."

Regarding more offensive things said in front of other people, the suit claims that during a company meeting "with more than 60 employees, including the Chief Talent Officer (who is the global head of Human Resources for JWT), Martinez distinguished between good rape and rape 'not in a nice way.'"

JWT referred requests for comment to parent company WPP, which did not immediately respond. However, a statement was issued from Mr. Martinez reading: "I am aware of the allegations made against me by a J. Walter Thompson employee in a suit filed in New York Federal Court. I want to assure our clients and my colleagues that there is absolutely no truth to these outlandish allegations and I am confident that this will be proven in court."

The suit represents yet another mark against an industry that routinely has diversity issues and lacks sufficient women and people of color, particularly in senior roles.

In January, Interpublic's Campbell Ewald came under fire after one of its creative directors sent a racist email to colleagues in its San Antonio office about "Ghetto Day in the SA," according to a copy of the memo that appeared on AgencySpy. That email included an image of two African-American men and spoke of drugs and prostitution.

IPG ended up firing Campbell Ewald's CEO Jim Palmer a few days after the memo hit the press, Ad Age reported, on the grounds that Mr. Palmer didn't immediately fire the creative director who sent the email and didn't tell people at Interpublic.

After the news hit the press, a number of clients parted with Campbell Ewald, starting with USAA. Then Edward Jones and Henry Ford Health Centers said they will not renew their contracts, which are set to expire in the coming months.

Meanwhile, WPP said it is "investigating" complaints from an anonymous group of employees made against Kinetic Worldwide CEO Maurice Sabogal for his "offensive and discriminatory treatment and views of Americans," including Hispanic Americans.

Ad Age has reached out to a number of JWT clients for comment.

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