Biegel Goes Legal, Says He's No Dirty Dog

You Couldn't Make This Up. Matthew Creamer on the Man Suing Dentsu

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- On Steve Biegel's personal website, among the usual intellectual bric-a-brac of a midcareer creative -- print and TV ads, a bio, a manifesto of sorts -- you will find this schmaltzy bit of philosophizing: "First, we start as a little sediment sitting all by yourself. Then, one day, by the sheer force of nature, we are stuck to another individual for a period of time. ... We become defined today, by who we were with, and where we were."

STEVE BIEGEL: The former Dentsu creative director alleges he was fired for his reluctance to participate in activities such as visiting a brothel.

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Steve Biegel Alleges He Was Fired for Complaining About Sexual Situations

Strange that a meditation sparked by his 8-year-old son's geology homework now, in light of Mr. Biegel's explosive legal action that ascribes graphic sexual proclivities to a former employer, seems downright prescient.

The 45-year-old creative director, an ad veteran who's passed through a bunch of big New York ad agencies, receiving little outside recognition along the way, now finds himself "defined" by a series of utterly bizarre, erotically charged experiences he alleges he had in the company of Toyo Shigeta, who as chief executive of Dentsu Holdings runs the U.S. and Canadian operations of one of the adworld's biggest players. Mr. Biegel, who worked for Dentsu for three years, is alleging Mr. Shigeta subjected him to several experiences, all recounted in skin-crawling detail in a 21-page lawsuit filed in federal court.

'Outrageous allegations'
Mr. Biegel claims his resistance to things such as going to a brothel with Mr. Shigeta led to his firing late last year, according to the papers. In shocking detail, those papers paint the Dentsu bigwig as nothing less than a hyper-libidinous rogue who demanded his subordinates take as much pleasure in lewd talk about outré sex acts, frolicking with prostitutes and photographing the crotches of women as he did.

The scandal has already rocked Dentsu, an Asian powerhouse that's had trouble snapping out of torpor in the U.S. Fresh off the acquisition of digital shop Attik, it's been trying to ramp up its growth efforts here and doesn't need this PR black eye. What's more, the scandal is sure to only deepen.

Dentsu dismissed Mr. Biegel's claims in a statement Oct. 31: "When Dentsu refused to yield to Mr. Biegel's unreasonable demands, he made outrageous allegations, which the company has refuted. He has now filed a claim to obtain money to which he is not entitled, for incidents he alleges took place over three years ago and which he never complained about while an employee of Dentsu."

Dentsu is all but certain to fire back at Mr. Biegel with its own lawsuit alleging that the former employee defamed the company when he informed a few Dentsu clients of his impending legal action. Such legal back-and-forth could get very icky very fast, and Mr. Biegel's lawyer, Andy Dwyer, said he's certain any countersuit would be merely about discrediting his client.

"It would just be about a desire to get back at Steve," he said.

A countersuit's impact on Mr. Biegel, regardless of its legal merits, will be another story, since it's clear this is not a battle of equals -- or even near-equals. Consider this analogue from recent history: Julie Roehm's legal action against Wal-Mart ran out of steam when the retailer came back with a blistering attack of its own, packing all kinds of personal shrapnel into a legal bombshell and dropping it into her lap. When it exploded, even a larger-than-life, media-honed persona provided virtually no cover. Mr. Biegel, on the other hand, is little known outside the creative circles in which he ran at agencies such as Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, Ogilvy & Mather and Ammirati & Puris (now part of Lowe), where he started his career as the agency's first junior copywriter back in 1988.

In the years since then, Mr. Biegel toiled as a "middle-of-the-road" creative and a "bit of a workhorse, someone who just got the job done," as one former colleague put it. His profile on the social network LinkedIn boasts more-positive appraisals. In one, a former Ogilvy colleague named Jerouen Bours lauds Mr. Biegel as "the consummate writer in his field" and a "deep and thorough and sincere thinker."

Family man
That same profile page lists as his honors as an Effie, a Clio and a David Ogilvy Award. But as "biggest honor" he lists his duty as "coach of the Long Island Flag Football Rookie Division champions," noting parenthetically, "What's more rewarding than getting a ramshackle bunch of 8-year-old boys running in the same direction?" Mr. Biegel, a father of two, is married, according to the lawsuit, and lives in Woodbury, a town on New York's Long Island.

Since his outster from Dentsu, Mr. Biegel has been marketing himself as a freelancer, though it's unclear for what client, and earned a co-writing and production credit on a film about baseball made by his brother.

Whether Mr. Biegel will have the stomach for a protracted legal battle remains to be seen. In an e-mail to Ad Age sent after the story broke last Wednesday night, he acknowledged the David-and-Goliath situation in a plea to hear his side of the story. "Remember," he wrote, "I am challenging the largest entity in advertising. They have deep pockets and conference rooms full of lawyers, PR people and spinmeisters."

Since then, he has generally deferred to his attorney, Mr. Dwyer, an employment-law specialist who has tangled with corporate giants such as Tropicana in these kinds of disputes. But the cause's greatest medium is the 21-page lawsuit that puts the seedy, lascivious adventures of a powerful, globe-trotting ad executive in grand narrative form for all to see. At its center is a blow-by-blow description of a June 2004 evening when Mr. Biegel says he unwittingly found himself at Escade Caberet, a brothel in Prague. According to the lawsuit, Mr. Shigeta ordered him and another employee to an undisclosed location that turned out to be a house of prostitution.

Crotch shots
Mr. Shigeta, the lawsuit says, encouraged his subordinates to pair up with prostitutes. When they resisted, he ordered them. "You-him, you-him," he said, matching each ad executive to one of Escade's ladies. Mr. Biegel and the woman assigned to him by Mr. Shigeta then repaired to one of brothel's private rooms where nothing happened, the suit says. He waited for a bit and then left.

The Escade episode wasn't the only time Mr. Shigeta displayed a lusty side, according to the lawsuit. "Apparently," it reads, "taking close-up crotch shots of women is a personal obsession of defendant Shigeta." As evidence, Mr. Biegel points to an October 2006 Canon commercial shoot, also in Prague, where he maintains Mr. Shigeta used a telephoto lens to capture spokeswoman Maria Sharapova's exposed panties as the tennis star draped her legs over the back of chair in a moment of repose. That photo, which was passed around digitally, is now attached to the lawsuit.

At other times, there was candid talk about sexual behavior being part of Japanese business traditions, as when Mr. Shigeta purportedly told Mr. Biegel that a customary way to seal a deal between two parties is for both to have sex simultaneously with the same woman. Where such an act is known -- and that's mainly in pornographic circles -- it's known as "double penetration," something Mr. Shigeta claimed to have done once in Mexico, per the lawsuit.

Mr. Biegel claims that, as a married father, this activity offended him and that, shortly after he complained about it to a supervisor, Mr. Shigeta's behavior turned chilly. Eventually Mr. Biegel and the supervisor were fired. There's also a side accusation that he was out of favor because he's Jewish, a claim that's skimpily supported by the fact adduced in the complaint that his replacement in the job was not Jewish.

Dentsu last week offered a contrasting version of Mr. Biegel's dismissal, saying it had nothing to do with any complaints he intended to lodge against Mr. Shigeta but was instead part of a management overhaul that saw Mr. Shigeta promoted to his current role. "The leadership at Dentsu was not thrilled with the work they were doing," a spokesman for the agency said.

Mr. Dwyer counters that his client's shortcomings were never spelled out to him and, upon his dismissal, he was informed the agency was moving in "a new direction."

Mr. Biegel himself is, rather quixotically, attempting to avoid any further attention. Citing fear of Dentsu backlash, he's declined interview requests. Late Friday afternoon, he responded to an e-mailed list of questions that Mr. Dwyer would handle all inquiries, explaining in one brief sentence: "This is difficult."

~ ~ ~
Contributing: Rupal Parekh

Japan's 'kinky' corporate culture is just a cliché

[TOKYO] Is Japanese business culture "kinkier" than others when it comes to bonding with colleagues or clients, letting loose while on a business trip, or celebrating professional success? Unless I've been leading a terribly sheltered existence, after two years working in Japan and with the Japanese, I can say with some conviction that this is not the case.

Of course, you might be prone to suffer public humiliation in Tokyo if your singing skills are not up to snuff during an evening out at a karaoke bar. Many a Japanese or Western executive, after a belabored imitation of Frank Sinatra or Billy Idol, has slunk back to his glass of beer with cheeks aflame.

But, hand on heart, I can state that I have never observed the other cheeks of my Japanese colleagues at a public bath. Although communal bathing is an ancient Japanese custom still alive today, it's generally an area where business and "privates" don't mingle.

Often quite formal, regimented and consensus-driven in the workplace, Japanese business culture emphasizes personal contact and camaraderie after hours. The old cliché of legions of Japanese salarymen heading off to get drunk together after work may still exist to a degree, but it has been replaced in most circles (and industries) by tamer evenings out with colleagues over dinner, drinks and, yes, karaoke.

And what of the notorious "hostess bars" that dot the streets in Ginza and Roppongi? Most offer their clients nothing more salacious than the company of an attractive woman who will pour their drinks while flattering their egos. This information, of course, comes to me secondhand.

The Japanese are nothing if not disciplined, and there is a strong emphasis on keeping public face. The Japanese senior executive is generally seen as the embodiment of his company's reputation. When that trust is broken, it leads, for example, to the scenes of televised public apologies that have marked the exits of several noteworthy Japanese CEOs when their companies were caught in scandals.

In many instances, the most grievous public offense those executives had committed before that moment may have been nothing more criminal than a heavily accented rendition of "Strangers in the Night."

--John M. McNeel

John M. McNeel is president of TBWAHakuhodo International and worldwide managing director on Nissan.

Brothels, bathhouses are part of doing business in Asia

[HONG KONG] When Asian advertising executives learned last week about the sexual-harassment and discrimination lawsuit filed by Steve Biegel against Dentsu, many were astounded -- not by the steamy nature of the charges Mr. Biegel levied against his former employer, which involved visits to brothels and bathhouses, nor about the scandal that has erupted in the U.S. as a result. They were astounded that the charges could end up being a lawsuit at all, given how common they are in this region.

A successful outcome for Mr. Biegel would and should strike fear into Asia's ad industry, and not only at Asian agencies such as Dentsu, Hakuhodo and Chiel. Brothel visits, dirty e-mails, lewd behavior -- they are equally common at the big Western networks and in the rest of Asia, for that matter. Just ask anyone who works at an agency in South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Thailand or the Philippines, and you'll hear the same stories.

Some of the specifics will change. Chinese bosses celebrate with subordinates and clients at KTV bars, where they rent small rooms with big-screen TVs and one or two sofas and belt out tunes amid free-flowing cognac, accompanied by "hostesses." The ladies offer various degrees of friendly behavior for cash and often go to hotels with customers later in the evening.

In Bangkok, the drink of choice is either beer or whiskey, and the location is Patpong, a bar district famous for exotic behavior with pingpong balls, among other objects. Commenting on the allegations in Mr. Biegel's case, which include being forced to go to a brothel in the Czech Republic with his Japanese colleagues, an agency executive who has lived in several Asian countries, including Japan and Thailand, said, "When I lived in Bangkok, I had to go to strip clubs three or four nights a week, like everyone else. It's part of the business culture." As for Toyo Shigeta's alleged obsession with underwear, well, that's a no-brainer for anyone who's spent time in Japan. To put it mildly, he's not the only one. We're talking about a country where schoolgirls have started wearing underwear made with a special nylon and polyurethane weave. They are trying to stop men from getting a panchira (panty glimpse) up their skirts on subways, now that the pervs have started modifying their cameras' night-vision modes to see right through fabric.

Certainly I'm not condoning any of this behavior, especially the illegal activities, including sex slavery, that take place far too often in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. And to be fair, Mr. Biegel was working out of the Dentsu office in New York, not Tokyo, during the time of the alleged activities.

But he was working for a company based in and largely staffed by people from Japan, a country whose culture, values, customs, social rituals, and attitudes toward hierarchy and rank were honed long before Madison Avenue existed.

--Normandy Madden

Normandy Madden is editor of AdAgeChina.
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