'What was the alternative?': shock at WPP over Nick Emery’s sacking

Companies are becoming 'less forgiving' of mistakes, lawyers say.

Emery: became global chief executive in 2012
Emery: became global chief executive in 2012

The manner of WPP’s abrupt sacking of Nick Emery as global chief executive of Mindshare over a juvenile prank on an internal video call has stunned insiders at the company.

Campaign broke the news on Wednesday 14 October, the day of his dismissal, and the sorry saga has made its way into The Sun and MailOnline.

The main facts are reasonably clear, despite WPP not commenting beyond the company’s initial statement last week and Emery also declining to comment.

The long-serving Mindshare boss, who became global chief executive in 2012 and is based in London, was on a regular video call with more than a dozen senior members of his executive committee team two weeks ago.

Campaign understands there was some light-hearted chat, as there had been on previous occasions on the call, with most of the top team at the global agency having been working remotely, and dealing with the financial crisis sparked by the coronavirus, for seven months and counting.

When Emery said at one point that he needed a pee, he appears to have got caught up in an exchange of banter about whether he would dare to go. 

Fatefully, Emery took his device into the office toilet as a joke and apparently told people they could hang up if they wanted.

The exact details of what happened next or which of those people on the video call saw what unfolded are unclear. Tabloid news reports about Emery having shown his bottom may not be completely reliable.

But as one industry observer, who was not involved but knows what happened, told Campaign: “It was a stupid remark and a stupid action in front of the wrong people.”

At least one person was upset by the incident, took a screenshot and complained through a formal WPP process. One source claims there was a video recording.

Group M, the immediate parent company of Mindshare, and WPP launched an investigation.

Given Emery’s seniority, as a member of WPP chief executive Mark Read’s executive committee, it is thought the WPP board was also informed.

By the middle of the following week, the company had decided to dismiss Emery.

However, it is thought that he had no idea that he was under investigation until he was told on 14 October that he was to be stripped of his job with immediate effect.

Christian Juhl, global chief executive of Group M, told Mindshare’s staff by email at around 7.30pm UK time that their boss had been removed.

Emery had committed “a clear breach of the company's code of conduct”, according to a statement from Group M.

The quote from Juhl gave little clue about what Emery had done wrong and was brutal: “At Group M and our agencies, we believe everyone should experience an inclusive and respectful workplace culture. Inappropriate and offensive behaviour is not tolerated in our company, and when we see any employee breach our code of conduct, we take swift action."

Campaign broke the story shortly afterwards and, in the absence of further information about what Emery had done, the rumour mill went into overdrive.

Things became clearer when Campaign reported on 16 October that Emery had been sacked because of a “lavatorial" prank on a video call, and an industry observer was quoted as saying, the Mindshare boss had been “juvenile and stupid”, rather than doing anything “really awful” that involved race, fraud, an inappropriate relationship or malice.

Internal reaction 

There is no question that Emery’s conduct was “inappropriate and offensive” for a global chief executive of a company with managerial responsibility for 8,000 staff and clients that include Unilever, Nike and Facebook. 

But insiders were still stunned at the manner of his dismissal.

In a very different case, involving allegations made by a JWT employee against Gustavo Martinez, the then global chief executive of the WPP agency, in 2016, there was a lengthy process that lasted many months when Read’s predecessor, Sir Martin Sorrell, was still in charge. 

WPP eventually settled the case. Martinez moved job internally and remained with the company until 2018.

One WPP executive, who was not involved in the Emery process, said: “We have spoken a lot about ‘walking the walk’. A lot of people have been saying it [this rapid decision] is a great example of you [WPP] delivering on your promises.

“The problem is, if you didn’t do it, let’s say you shuffle him off sideways and then are paying him for a year [as a member of staff], then people think you’re not being decisive. Acting quickly is acting decisively, which is in everyone’s interests,” the person added.

“Everyone is gutted but I don’t think there’s anything else they could have done,” the executive continued. “You can’t condone this behaviour. What was the alternative?”

Being seen to promote and uphold “diversity and inclusion are as much of an issue as the pandemic” at the moment, this person said.

But a second WPP executive, who was also not involved in the Emery case, wondered whether the company had over-reacted. 

“Whether it was an immediate sackable offence and [worthy of] an all-staff email, I don’t know,” this executive said.

Emery’s rapid exit raises some questions about the process, although WPP's lawyers are likely to have prepared the ground carefully.

There are suggestions the company did not talk to all of the people who were on the video call before dismissing Emery. Hypothetically, the company could have chosen to suspend him initially.

A leader of a rival agency network, who is no fan of Emery, is surprised by how WPP has handled the case. “It’s pretty ruthless the way they’ve announced it,” this person said.

Several industry observers pointed to another case this month involving claims of inappropriate behaviour by Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker, on a work video call, although the circumstances are different. Condé Nast, his employer, has suspended him initially and is investigating.

The legal point of view

The Emery case raises wider questions about appropriate behaviour in the modern workplace.

Shilpen Savani, a specialist in employment law and partner at Gunnercooke, who is familiar with the ad industry, said: “Standards of conduct have risen quite significantly in the workplace in recent years. An employer’s code of conduct should be respected by everyone and this kind of schoolboy humour is simply outdated and likely to cause offence.”

Alexandra Thompson, an employment lawyer at Withers LLP, said the sudden switch to remote working during the pandemic has added a new layer of complexity.

"The interesting point about this case is it suggests that we're in a whole new universe because of remote working and people not going into the office every day,” Thompson said. “Is it OK to sit with a toddler on your lap on a video call? Probably, yes. Is it OK to go to the toilet? Absolutely not. People need new guidelines. Never before have our professional lives and our personal lives intersected so much.”

She added: "We are seeing two other trends: media coverage around ill-judged incidents can gain momentum because of additional scrutiny such as social media. It can cast a shadow far beyond the immediate incident itself, which may have influenced the decision at Mindshare to move quickly.

"Second, companies are less forgiving. Momentary lapses of judgment, especially among leaders, are no longer being tolerated. The room for errors shrinks as people climb the corporate ladder. Leaders have to set an example. 

“If you forgive an ill-judged prank by the CEO, then how would you deal with another incident with a more junior employee? Consistency is important – we see that in employment tribunals. If you let off the CEO, what precedent does that set?"

A maverick but dedicated CEO

Emery worked at WPP for more than 25 years and helped to set up Mindshare in 1997 when it was formed through the merger of the media departments of Ogilvy and JWT.

A fan of punk rock, he has a reputation for being something of a maverick but also a respected and dedicated operator.

He recalled in a Campaign interview in 2017 that the agency’s launch had been disruptive. "We had a new generation of people who saw media not as a financial deal and a transaction but something that was exciting to play with", in terms of using different media channels in innovative ways, he said.

More recently, Mindshare and other established media agencies have faced fresh challenges as data and automation changed the nature of media planning and buying.

His exit means WPP has now changed the leadership of Group M, the world’s biggest advertising buyer, and all of its four media agency networks in less than two years – with only Juhl, who ran Essence, moving up.

Stephen Allan left MediaCom in June and Tim Castree previously left Wavemaker. Several other long-servers have departed.

Some industry observers have speculated that some of the current leadership might not have been entirely unhappy to see Emery leave but there is no suggestion that the company was looking to oust him before the video-call incident.

One of the main responses to Emery’s fall has been sadness. One ally admitted: “Nick likes a joke but it’s a British nuance and it doesn’t always translate very well. Nick has no malice. He is absolutely against any form of harassment and discrimination. He is just a bit of a schoolboy with his humour.”

And that has cost Emery his job at the agency he has spent 23 years building.

Topics