A view from Claire Beale

JWT saga is raising wider questions for the industry

I was in Campaign's US headquarters in the fashion district of Manhattan last week when the New York Post published a story headlined: "JWT CEO...

The news fizzed through the ad industry over there like an electric shock.

The global chief of the world’s oldest advertising agency is being sued by his chief communications officer, Erin Johnson, for an alleged string of racial and sexist comments. The claims against Gustavo Martinez are explosive and – false or true – damaging to all involved, including, of course, the agency and its staff.

As I write, Martinez is still officially at work. J Walter Thompson’s owner, WPP, has not suspended him as it investigates the case. Insiders say this is making it harder to keep the business on track: the farrago is getting in the way of business as usual. If Martinez is found culpable, business as usual at JWT will require a radical rethink. So, too, will our collective tolerance of offensive behaviour.

Of course, sometimes people say things off the cuff that make others feel uncomfortable. But when you keep being offended by the same person, over and over, clearly there’s a problem. Which is why the Martinez case is perplexing. If his attitude was as endemic and relatively public as the suit suggests, why has no-one spoken out before now and why does WPP appear to have been slow to act? Martinez was recorded making a rape joke about African Americans during a meeting of top agency executives in 2015, a lawyer for Johnson has confirmed this week. Did no-one else at that meeting find it offensive and, if they did, why didn’t they say anything? Either an awful lot of people have been complicit in ignoring what’s been going on or Martinez’s actions have not been as extreme as the lawsuit suggests.

I know from experience that Martinez is a warm, tactile Latino. He told me he’s a hugger and that the JWT crew has found that to be a very different approach to his predecessor, Bob Jeffrey; he’s culturally worlds away. Before all this, it was refreshing to see someone ascend to the top of the business who wasn’t a cookie-cutter American or Anglo-Saxon man, and our industry will take a real step backwards if the JWT saga makes agencies more nervous of hiring outside of type. We desperately need more diverse leadership.

But one thing’s for sure: if Johnson’s claims are upheld, clients will – and should – act. Kellogg, Kimberly-Clark and Johnson & Johnson are all titans on the JWT roster, and it’s hard to imagine such conservative clients will be happy working with JWT if it’s proved to have harboured the behaviour of which Martinez is accused. This story is far from done.