Eight months before the #MeToo movement began to play out in Hollywood, the global chief communications officer at J. Walter Thompson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the agency and its global CEO. Erin Johnson alleged inappropriate physical contact and racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments—including jokes about raping female staffers—from Gustavo Martinez.
For the next two years, the suit dragged through the courts. WPP and its then-CEO Martin Sorrell were accused of digging in their heels when most agencies at the time opted to handle such matters quietly. As subsequent harassment scandals erupted at shops including The Martin Agency and Droga5, Johnson was put in a position uncharacteristic of a PR professional—constantly named in headlines, but unable to speak publicly during pending litigation.
Three-and-a-half years after filing her suit and nearly 18 months after reaching an undisclosed settlement with WPP, Johnson is dealing with a very different industry landscape. Sorrell has been ousted from the holding company he founded and now runs S4 Capital. WPP finally parted ways with Martinez two months following the settlement, after some reshuffling to quietly put him in charge of operations in Spain.
As for JWT, once the oldest advertising agency in the world, it’s gone, folded into Wunderman Thompson late in 2018.
Johnson left the industry, too, for a time, spending less than a year as chief communications officer at tech start-up Gifnote, for whom she remains an advisor. She spoke with Ad Age about the personal costs of bringing a harassment lawsuit, the #MeToo movement and what’s next for her. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
J. Walter Thompson is gone, merging with Wunderman last year. How does that make you feel?
Very sad. Depressed. A little angry. It was such a great brand. I remember we had worked so hard to celebrate the future at the 150th anniversary
[in 2014], and I was part of that. I loved the brand. I still love the brand. I’m sad that it’s not there anymore; it’s devastating to me.
For people who haven’t experienced harassment at work, what is it like to be in that kind of environment?
Sadly, I think a lot of people know how it feels because they deal with it every day. I think every woman has stories like mine. It’s like a death of a thousand cuts. And over the course of my career, I’ve experienced all sorts of things—inappropriate comments, inappropriate touching. Women especially have been taught or been told that it’s just the way it is.
How did you come to the decision that your only recourse was to file a lawsuit?
Everybody has a line. And when that line is crossed, it’s kind of like you can’t live with yourself unless you do something about it. This situation in particular with Gustavo began to cross the line of my ability to look myself in the mirror and accept it.
It’s really scary. I know I believe in myself. I know that I’m standing up for myself, but I also know the power of a billion-dollar company. You question and question and question yourself. I remember sitting up at night with my husband, at like 3 in the morning, debating what to do, because at a certain point I knew I had to file or not do anything. I kept saying “This is going to uproot our lives. This is not going to be quick. We could lose the house, we could lose everything [because of legal fees].” And I was terrified about what could happen to me. You go to really dark places. How would I afford mortgage bills? How would I pay for the kids? How would I continue to live? Who would hire me again? Would I be blacklisted forever?
And my husband just said, “Babe, nobody treats you like this. We’ll sell the house. It’s just a house. We’ll get an apartment. It’s just about us and the kids.” He said, “You work too hard, and this is not O.K. I got you.” And he took away all my fear that night, because I was so afraid.