4A's Conference

Tipping Point? How the Erin Johnson Lawsuit Dominated the 4A's Conference

Nancy Hill and Others at Annual Meeting Didn't Shy Away From Tough Topic

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At the 4A's conference, Nancy Hill said the industry may have reached a tipping point on gender issues.
At the 4A's conference, Nancy Hill said the industry may have reached a tipping point on gender issues. Credit: Ari Mintz/courtesy 4As

She was not even in attendance, but Erin Johnson dominated the conversation at the 4A's Transformation conference this week.

The lawsuit filed by J. Walter Thompson's communications executive against its former CEO Gustavo Martinez for alleged racist and sexist comments was ever present on the main stage, in the hallways and at private dinners in Miami.

Rather than sweeping the issue under the rug, the suit was front and center at the 4A's and engendered much-needed conversation about the lack of diversity in the ad industry and the dearth of people of color and women at the top.

It started immediately as 4A's President-CEO Nancy Hill brought up Ad Age's cover story on the suit in her opening remarks. "Ad Age's cover, while disturbing, raises discourse of gender equality to a new level," she said. "Unfortunately, the alleged behavior does happen. And it happens more frequently than we think."

Later that morning, DDB Worldwide North America CEO Wendy Clark urged the industry to "stay restless" on diversity and said, "We really have to stay focused on this discussion. We can't allow it to become a conversation when something goes wrong. We will not rest until the company reflects the marketplace we serve."

The subject was raised by panel after panel. "The ad industry and even Facebook -- we all have work to do. We have to train on unconscious bias," said Carolyn Everson, VP-global marketing solutions at Facebook. "We did this at Facebook -- it's publicly available, our training. The data suggests that if you have literally the same resumes but you swap that name at the top to a female and swap one bullet to say PTA, you won't be hired."

Noting that "there's not a single country in the world where more than 6% of their CEOs are women," Ms. Everson said "the needle hasn't moved and the data is even more depressing."

Some, like Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of MEC North America, said they hadn't personally experienced bias but agreed it exists. "It was never an issue for me personally," she said, adding that women are often left to just "figure it out." She said, however, that "giving support back" is needed.

"I was lucky," said Kasha Cacy, U.S. president of UM, noting that when hiring people often "look for people who look like them." She urged people to open their minds when hiring.

Off the stage and off the record, there were some who disagreed that there's an industry-wide problem. And there was one who disagreed on the record and on stage: Publicis CEO Maurice Levy.

"I don't believe that what happened at JWT is an example of what's happening in our industry," he said during a Q&A after his keynote. "It's a onetime mistake, a huge fault. But it's not a fair representation of our industry."

That remark drew rebukes from two quarters -- Ms. Hill and Martin Sorrell. The WPP chief executive said he "disagrees violently" with Mr. Levy. "Maurice has a habit of ignoring the facts and not letting the facts interfere with his analysis," he said.

He also made his first public remarks about the JWT suit. Responding to a statement by his interviewer Ken Auletta that "WPP took several different positions as this unfolded in the press," Mr. Sorrell pushed back, saying the company responded appropriately at each time to the information it had.

While noting that there was a "limited amount" he could say regarding the Mr. Martinez and WPP lawsuit filed by Ms. Johnson, he made it clear that the former CEO's resignation was a "mutual" decision.

"Whether you believe that Gustavo is innocent or guilty -- which is yet to be determined in a court of law -- in the court of public opinion, he has been sentenced and judged and found guilty," said Mr. Sorrell. "He thought and I thought and we thought it was in the interest of the company for him to resign and be replaced by Tamara Ingram as CEO."

He added that WPP did not insist that Ms. Johnson take a leave of absence, and "it's up to her if she wants to come back to the company or not."

Ms. Hill also took the unusual step of saying from the stage that she disagreed with Mr. Levy's assessment. And she added to the last day's main stage a panel about women's issues and the objectification of women in advertising -- a discussion that had previously been confined to the Girl's Lounge.

In fact, there was a palpable sense that the JWT lawsuit is finally kicking the industry into high gear to promote more inclusion.

Ms. Hill said that the safe places, groups and internship programs alone aren't enough. Advertising agencies, the CEOs in particular, have to take charge.

"Real change has to start with you, at the top," she said. "If you're the CEO, you are the chief diversity officer. Look at salaries. Is there a gap? If there is, fix it. Men, you must be part of the conversation. You have to start the conversation."

The bulk of the diversity discussion during the week had to do with gender, but the subject of race did come up a number of times.

Regarding talent from diverse backgrounds, Ms. Hill said: "Believe that if they don't look like you, don't feel or think like you, they have a different reference and life experiences and point of view, that doesn't make them wrong. It makes them valuable."

Some, in fact, seemed eager to dig in. Chloe Gottlieb, senior VP-creative director at RGA, made an impassioned plea for diversity in the ad business, actually tearing up as she asked the audience to "make room for people of color."

Then she added that she now has hiring power: "I can make space for people. Bring it on!"

And in her remarks on the last day of the conference, after the last panel was over, Ms. Hill seemed to find a silver lining in a cloud that the 4A's might have been sorely tempted to ignore heading into the week.

"We may just have reached a tipping point on gender," she said.

-- Alexandra Bruell and Lindsay Stein contributed to this report.