JWT: Today, Yesterday and the Truth

JWT's 'Old Habits' in the '60s Were Not Quite as Described -- I Was There

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There have been some rocky days lately at JWT. The worldwide CEO was bounced. The cause: A suit by the communications director, Erin Johnson, charging a pattern of racist and sexist remarks.

This brought forth comments in Ad Age by Gene Secunda, a former JWT communications director. He links the Martinez firing to a general undercurrent of racism and sexism at JWT in the past.

He says there were smug currents of bigoted conversation and behavior that flowed under the surface. He says Jews had to keep a low profile and rarely advanced. He says no disabled men or women were present. He says this was JWT in the early sixties. He says the Martinez affair shows old JWT habits die hard.

I don't buy it. I don't see linking Martinez to any old JWT habits. And as for those habits -- and JWT in the sixties -- not quite as described.

I was there. Secunda was hired by JWT shortly after me. I started in December 1959. Our recollections differ.

I had been at Newsweek (working for a female copy chief, incidentally). I began at the bottom of the Ford account -- as a direct mail writer. I left as chairman of JWT USA many years later. I happen to be Jewish. Not that it ever came up. The head of the Ford account when I started was also Jewish. He was shorter than me. When I was promoted, I remember telling my wife, "I think I may be the first six-foot Jewish VP in the history of the agency." It was a passing joke. The agency wasn't looking to keep Jews out. They were looking to bring talent in.

As for the disabled. One of the best Ford writers, Warren Wieth, had damaged legs and walked with a cane, slowly. Another top Ford writer, Barny Clark, had a malformed hip and limped. Warren used to say they were Ford's "gimpies."

I had female writers in my creative group in the sixties. They were needed -- more women were buying cars. We shunned the executive dining room for occasional garlic festival lunches in one the girls' Manhattan apartments. (Writers could afford Manhattan apartments back then.)

I hired a black art director in the late sixties, because I liked his work. Nobody said anything. Of course, blacks were an uncommon sight at JWT back then. And at most agencies. And throughout much of the business world.

I remember our head lawyer telling me he wanted funds to defend a possible suit because we didn't have enough minority employees. I said, why don't we use the money for scholarships for minority kids. Let them work at JWT for a year. If they do well, keep them. Never happened. Didn't push it hard enough, many other problems. My fault.

The truth is this: JWT wasn't a leader in social fairness. But it certainly wasn't a hotbed of unfairness. Agencies reflect the society and culture they are in -- and are selling to. That's the job; that's what works.

What's unique about JWT's past -- about its DNA -- is in its reason for being: creating ads that sell. It started the business (in 1864) and has a record of innovation and effectiveness few other agencies can match.

I'm sure Gene Secunda and I can agree on that.

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