Just over a week ago, I saw something amazing at the 4A's Transformation conference in Miami. I know. Already, you think I'm lying. What possibly could have been amazing at an industry conference? The $10 stale breakfast sandwich at the Loews coffee shop? The not-so-subtle sales and PR pitches from a few too many panel participants?
No, what was amazing was watching WPP CEO Martin Sorrell use a bit of verbal jujitsu to turn a fairly substantial problem for his holding company and its J. Walter Thompson agency against the CEO of rival Publicis Groupe, Maurice Levy.
If you're reading this column, you know by now that JWT communications exec Erin Johnson filed a gender discrimination and hostile work environment lawsuit against the company and former CEO Gustavo Martinez. The lawsuit claims that Martinez made all sorts of horrible racist and anti-Semitic remarks and followed up with some equally awful misogyny. WPP and JWT denied the claims, then said they were investigating, then reached a mutual decision with Martinez that he resign, before naming Tamara Ingram the agency's new CEO.
So, obviously, going into a 4A's conference where both Sorrell and Levy were scheduled to speak -- and where 4A's President-CEO Nancy Hill decided the issue wouldn't be swept under the rug -- this should have been a bigger problem for the WPP chief.
But it was the Publicis head who, as they probably don't say in France, stepped in it. When asked if he thought the problems outlined in the lawsuit were indicative of something rotten in the state of advertising, Levy said no. "It's a onetime mistake, a huge mistake, a huge fault," he said. "But it's not a fair representation of the industry."
As the words came out of his mouth, I had a vision of Sorrell, somewhere in London, dancing a jig. And the next day, when The New Yorker's Ken Auletta broached the subject of the lawsuit during an interview with Sorrell, WPP's leader didn't pass up the opportunity handed to him. He worked around to Levy's comment, noting that he disagreed "violently" and that "Maurice has a habit of … not letting the facts interfere with his analysis."
It was either the highlight or the lowlight of the conference, depending on your point of view.
And it wasn't over yet.
Last week, Levy decided to respond by way of a memo to his staff. The memo was long and only part of it was devoted to spinning away his remarks. The rest was shade thrown in the general direction of Sorrell and WPP. He bragged about Publicis' history of hiring women and said that "should a case of this nature be brought to our attention, we would react strongly and without delay."
Regarding Sorrell, he said Sir Martin "once again showed his extraordinary level of hypocrisy. I mean, really?" I have to take a moment to point out that "I mean, really?" is actually in the memo. Levy continued: "The situation began in his company, in one of his largest agencies, with a CEO, therefore someone who is meant to lead by example."
He then dragged David Ogilvy into the dispute. "Rarely will Martin Sorrell have so well deserved the description given to him by David Ogilvy."
The memo, which was sent by email, generously hyperlinked to an old Fortune article containing Ogilvy's description of Sorrell as an "odious little jerk." But multiple people in the industry will tell you that "jerk" is a more polite substitute for what Ogilvy really said.
For journalists, fans of reality TV and people who just like an interesting story, this back-and-forth was gold. It's entertaining. And we don't get a lot of that these days, even in an industry supposedly full of creativity and big personalities but seemingly controlled by stage managers and nervous PR people.
Oh, sure, behind the scenes, I've seen industry execs who don't like each other, whether due to personality differences or professional envy (or professional disdain). But they don't let these things boil over in public.
That might make for a sterile industry, but that also makes for a more civilized one. If you want to be entertained by the ad industry, go watch "Mad Men." Just don't be nostalgic for it. The world of "Mad Men" is good TV, but if you weren't a white man, it certainly wasn't a place you actually wanted to work.
And while Sorrell and Levy's bickering is funny, the topic at the heart of this particular fight isn't. Though it is perhaps fitting that this particular round is being conducted by European men of a certain generation.
Yes, there are plenty of male American execs of the knuckle-dragging type across all industries. But they've gotten the memo that they at least have to behave themselves in meetings. Our South American neighbors and our friends across the pond no doubt think that all of America is now just one big politically correct college campus full of emasculated men and sensitive women who need trigger warnings. (Actually, plenty of Americans believe that. Just look at Donald Trump and his supporters.)
While I like a good joke and a quick comeback, I'd rather work in an office where casual racism and blatant misogyny aren't everyday occurrences passed off as humor or, worse, just part of a cultural misunderstanding. Save your "charm" for your dating life and your comedy routine for your friends and family (or open-mic night at the Ha-Ha Hut).
Things are changing. And they should.
Already, men are behaving better. And women are making strides across the industry—even if change in the C-suite and creative departments is a lot slower. (And even if the industry is still stuck in the '70s when it comes to racial diversity.)
As we move forward, we'll likely see even less of these public outbursts. I'm not a believer that women are a nobler race, above the lower emotions of men. Just watch an hour of any "Real Housewives" franchise. But in business situations, they compete differently than men, and are much less inclined to public displays of aggression.
That might be bad news for journalists seeking a show, and I'm actually going to miss the spectacle of Alpha Males hooting across conference rooms and thumping their chests to reporters. But it's a cheap price for progress.
Ken Wheaton is the editor of Advertising Age.