WPP lawyers: Martinez made rape joke to 'lighten the tension'

Gustavo Martinez, the former global chief executive of J Walter Thompson, joked about rape to colleagues to "lighten the tension" and improve employees' morale, lawyers for WPP have told a US court.

Gustavo Martinez: former JWT CEO has denied claims made against him in lawsuit
Gustavo Martinez: former JWT CEO has denied claims made against him in lawsuit

The former JWT boss resigned on 17 March after Erin Johnson, the agency’s chief communications officer, claimed he made a rape joke about African Americans in a 28-page discrimination suit against Martinez, JWT and its parent company, WPP.

For the first time, WPP has acknowledged that Martinez made a joke about rape in memoranda submitted to a US district court yesterday (29 March). But the company claims Johnson has taken the remarks out of context, that they were not related to race, and that they were intended to make employees feel better instead of causing a hostile work environment.

As part of her claim, Johnson is trying to submit as evidence a video excerpt taken from a two-day off-site meeting for senior JWT executives at the Viceroy Hotel in Miami on 18 and 19 May 2015.

Johnson says the video shows Martinez making comments about "strange characters in the elevator", that he thought he was going to be "raped in the elevator" the night before and "not in a nice way," and that colleagues should "check your… luggage"; apparently in reference to African-American guests at a party held at the hotel the night before the meeting.

But WPP claims Martinez’s comments were taken out of context and were the result of the chief executive trying to ease employees' fears after witnessing the aftermath of an out-of-control party at the hotel.

The company produced further affidavits from JWT employees visible on the video that supported this claim: Susana Carvalho, the chief executive of JWT Lisbon; Charlotte Ibarra, Martinez’s global communications assistant; Keni Thacker, the senior event technology specialist at JWT New York; and Lynn Power, the president of JWT New York.

According to WPP’s submissions, most JWT staff arrived in Miami on Sunday 17 May and were transported to and from the hotel by bus. Upon returning to the hotel after a meal at a restaurant, they saw several police cars and it appeared that a pool party had spiraled out of control. Some JWT executives stepped over "puddles of vomit" to gain access to the hotel.

Carvalho had returned to her hotel room after dinner the following evening to find her luggage missing, apparently stolen from her hotel room. It later transpired that hotel staff had mistakenly removed the luggage from her room.

WPP says because Martinez thought that Carvalho’s bag had been stolen he told staff at the meeting on Tuesday morning that they should "check all their luggage". It was then that Martinez also commented on the "strange characters" in the elevator, and joked about being "raped in the elevator" on the Sunday evening and "not in a nice way," and said that the hotel was very "tricky".

The company said the ethnic minority and female executives in the room were not offended by Martinez’s comments, and nor did they interpret the comments as racial.

The submission says: "Put into context, it is obvious that Martinez’s comments opening the second day of the meeting were an attempt to lighten the tension caused by the party at the hotel and were not related to race or intended to create a hostile work environment for the company’s female or male employees.

"To the contrary, the comments were intended to relieve the unpleasant environment that the employees had been exposed to by the guests at the party at the hotel.

"And indeed, Martinez’s comment about fearing that he might be 'raped' in the elevator described a hypothetical situation involving himself, rather than another employee – he was not referencing or suggesting that a rape could have or had been committed with respect to someone else. Nor was he condoning rape.

"No one should fault Mr Martinez (for whom English is his fourth language) for at least attempting to address with some humor the events that the employees had experienced."

WPP does not want the tape to be entered as evidence. If it is it becomes a matter of public record and WPP claims it has the right to prevent public disclosure of the video if it would cause annoyance, embarrassment and/or significant harm to the company.

The company also said the video should not be made public because it would lead to more "harassment" from the media. The company said executives appearing on the tape have been subjected to harassing calls and emails from a Campaign US reporter [Eleftheria Parpis, the deputy editor].

WPP said: "The Campaign reporter has indicated that someone who has seen the video (no one at JWT had a copy of the raw footage of the video or could have viewed it) had spoken to her and identified the JWT employees visible on the video, she therefore has contacted these employees about whether she can ask them questions about what took place at the meeting.

"These uninvited and recurring requests for comments from the press have resulted simply by the virtue of the leak about the video to one reporter; such unwanted solicitations will only increase in number and intensity if the video is publicly filed and made available to other reporters."

Martinez was replaced as chief executive by Tamara Ingram, the former WPP chief client team officer.