The 5 biggest scandals of 2020
The ad industry was rocked this year by a global pandemic, causing marketing plans to freeze, budgets to be slashed and a slew of agency layoffs. Amid the turmoil, several high-profile scandals further shocked the system.
Stan Richards steps down over racist remark
Probably the most infamous of offenses was Stan Richards' decision to step down in October from the agency he founded in 1976 after a racist comment he made in an internal ad review was surfaced (See Biggest agency implosion of 2020). Richards said in the internal review that a creative concept for client Motel 6 was "too Black" and that it risked alienating the chain's "white supremacist constituents." Following the remark, a string of clients departed, including Motel 6, Home Depot, Keurig Dr Pepper, Orkin, H.E.B. and Advance Auto Parts. Motel 6 has since hired a new creative agency of record, Barkley, following a review launched before the incident.
The Richards Group has also started to see employees leave. Among them are Kyle Kelley and Andrew Harper, who clocked in more than 10 years, most recently as creative group heads, who left in November to become executive creative directors at PMG.
Whether The Richards Group—which grew into the largest independent agency in the U.S. since its founding 44 years ago—can recover remains to be seen. Richards, 88, was an esteemed figure in the industry. An American Advertising Federation Hall of Famer, his name still adorns the University of Texas School of Advertising and Public Relations and he is regarded as a larger-than-life legend in the business.
Mark Read's ageist comments
WPP CEO Mark Read came under fire after he remarked on a company earnings call in August that, "luckily," the "average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30."
After several folks in the industry—long been plagued by the issue of ageism—called him out, Read walked it back.
Read said on Twitter that the comment was made in response to an analyst's question asking "if our teams have the right balance of skills between TV and digital. I believe they do but was wrong to use age to try to make a point. People over 40 can do great digital marketing just as people under 30 can make great TV ads," he wrote in the tweet.
Read continued, "We're fortunate to have thousands of people at WPP who have decades of experience and expertise. They're extremely valuable to our business and the work we do for clients, and I'm sorry my reply suggested otherwise."
For the record, Read is 53.
Deutsch L.A. fires Brett Craig over offensive email
If anything positive can be drawn from 2020 scandals it's that some agencies aren't tolerating offensive behavior any longer, and old-school executives who might once have gotten away with making off-color comments are losing their jobs.
Case in point: Deutsch L.A. fired Brett Craig after a former employee posted to Instagram a screenshot of an work email that the former chief creative officer sent to a client in 2015. The email—which people familiar with the situation told Adweek was sent by Craig—discusses casting decisions for a TV shoot. In it, according to the story, Craig refers to a casting candidate as “Not so urban/AA” (the abbreviation stands for African American). The email was resurfaced by Kady Kamakaté, a former Deutsch L.A. employee, in an Instagram post. She wrote, “I never once felt protected or empowered enough to speak up … lest I be considered ‘too Urban/AA.’”
Karen Costello, previously The Martin Agency's chief creative officer, has since replaced Craig.
VW pulls 'tasteless' video
Volkswagen was forced to apologize and pull an Instagram snippet meant to promote its latest Golf 8 model after social media users criticized it as racist. The video showed a man with dark skin moved around like a marionette by a large white hand before being slipped into the entrance of the Petit Colon cafe in Buenos Aires. The cafe is next to the popular Teatro Colon named after Italian explorer and colonist Christopher Columbus.
Some social media users also pointed out that floating letters in the video clip briefly spelled a pejorative German word for people of color. Felix Edeha, a Berlin-based journalist, was among those who captured the video before it was deleted. Edeha wrote in a tweet: "In the new # VW advertisement, a black man is pushed back and forth by a white hand and then snapped into a house with the heading ‘petit colon.’ The first letters to appear result in the N word.”
“Without question: the video is wrong and tasteless,” Volkswagen said in response. “We will clarify how this could happen—and take consequences from this.” A company spokesperson added that the campaign came from the automaker’s German headquarters.
Omelet slapped with lawsuit
A former Omelet associate creative director, Tiffani Harcrow, sued the Los Angeles independent agency in June after she says she was fired for refusing to work on a project for Princess Cruise Lines, one that allegedly downplayed the risks of COVID-19 to entice consumers to travel on company cruise ships.
The lawsuit alleges that Harcrow was instructed to “develop an aggressive marketing campaign designed to mislead consumers into believing that it would be safe to travel on a Princess cruise ship on June 30, 2020, despite the fact that there was no evidence behind such a representation.” When she refused, the suit accuses Harcrow's supervisor, Omelet Chief Creative Officer Michael Wallen and Omelet Director, People and Culture, Abba Binns—both of whom are named in the suit—of retaliating against her for declining to participate in the Princess Cruises brief by not employing her on further projects and ultimately firing her.
The lawsuit claims that Wallen responded to Harcrow's concerns by saying, “I would not put my family on a cruise ship either, for fear of catching COVID-19, but it was our duty to our client to instruct the public to do so.” The suit further alleges that, after Harcrow continued to raise concerns over the brief and decline to participate in the project, Wallen “threatened” to not place her on any other Omelet project.
An Omelet spokesperson denied the allegations brought in the suit and claimed Harcrow was let go as part of a round of layoffs that was a result of the pandemic.