A lawsuit brought by a former executive at Hyundai’s Innocean Worldwide accuses the agency and its chief creative officer of sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.
According to the suit filed on Jan. 11 in the Superior Court of Orange County, Calif., onetime Innocean director of content Victoria Guenier said she suffered repeated harassment under CCO Eric Springer, whom Guenier reported to, before being forced out of her job last May. She’s asking for unspecified damages including lost wages, benefits and legal fees.
In an interesting legal twist, the parties named in the case handled by attorneys Jennifer A. Clingo and Christopher P. Epsha of Los Angeles firm Clingo Law Group include not only the Innocean organization and Springer, but also 100 “John Does,” or unnamed stand-ins for the agency employees who allegedly facilitated the continuing abuse by refusing to act on the repeated complaints of Guenier and other women.
Innocean’s PR firm has not yet responded to repeated requests for comment on the case. Adweek reached out to Springer directly but had not received a response at the time this story went live.
Allegations of bullying
Innocean hired Geunier as an executive producer in April 2016. The agency veteran, who brought nearly two decades of experience to the role, alleges in the suit that Springer started mistreating her as soon as she joined the company.
“Springer routinely employed a bullying and harassing style that included intimidation by yelling and verbally insulting and cursing at defendants’ employees,” the lawsuit reads.
“Springer made plaintiff and other female employees feel physically threatened by standing over them … invad[ing] plaintiff’s personal space and routinely yell[ing] in plaintiff’s face,” according to the document, which says Springer created “a hostile work environment” for many women who grew to fear his “unpredictable conduct and/or outbursts in the workplace.”
The suit also alleges that the creative leader discriminated against female employees by using sexually suggestive or misogynistic language, belittling them in front of colleagues and initiating unwanted physical contact.
For example, the lawsuit claims that Springer “engaged in unlawful touching by slapping [Guenier] on her rear end upon greeting her on two separate occasions,” adding that “in each instance, Springer slapped plaintiff from the underside of her rear end, catching her by surprise.”
Springer also allegedly addressed Guenier using nicknames like “Queenie” and “honey bunny.” In a meeting attended by four senior male colleagues, Guenier claims that Springer told her, “Pull yourself up by your panties, Victoria.”
On another occasion, Guenier alleges, the chief creative asked about a job applicant: “Did you fuck him? Come on, did you fuck him?”
The defendants respond
On Feb. 23, more than a month after the initial filing, Innocean’s law firm, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, filed a response in which it argued that Guenier failed to prove she suffered “any injury, damage or loss by reasons of any act of omission or negligence” on the part of Innocean, Springer or the 100 John Does named in the suit.
The firm also asserts that Guenier waited too long to file her lawsuit and that any damages suffered may be attributed to “unclean hands with respect to the events upon which the complaint … [is] based.” The response does not specify how Guenier’s “carelessness” and “negligence” allegedly facilitated the events described in her complaint beyond claiming she failed to exhaust all options available to her under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections, the company’s own internal grievance policies and any other such “applicable administrative remedy.”
Even if the events had occurred as described in Guenier’s complaint, they write in the response, she is not entitled to any damages because of her failure to “make reasonable efforts to mitigate or minimize” actions that were “taken for legitimate, non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons.”
The document then cites unspecified evidence that “bars or limits” any damages to which she would have otherwise been entitled before demanding that the judge dismiss the case and order all of Innocean’s attorneys’ fees repaid.
Inaction by agency leaders
In her lawsuit, Guenier states that she sent Springer an email objecting to her treatment and that Springer responded “violently” by standing over her desk and yelling, “What the fuck were you thinking, Victoria, writing that fucking email. Putting that in fucking writing. How dare you? I thought you would never do something like that. What the fuck!” He then allegedly told her to “grow a pair” in close proximity to multiple co-workers.
Guenier purportedly took her case to Innocean’s human resources director, Sepa Sete, and chief operating officer Tim Blett on multiple occasions. The court document states that Sete, who “did not appear at all surprised by plaintiff’s complaints,” encouraged Guenier to “stop being a battered woman” and agreed that Springer “must be stopped.” Blett also expressed concern about the allegations, according to the filing.
Despite such sentiments, Guenier’s suit claims Sete and other Innocean leaders failed to investigate her complaints, choosing instead to protect Springer via “inaction.”
The agency later allegedly forced Guenier, who had been promoted to director of content production, to resign on or around April 4, 2017, according to the lawsuit, and later replaced her with an unnamed man who “lacks the experience and/or qualifications.” By that time, the suit claims, Guenier suffered from anxiety due to a working environment in which she was “trapped with a harasser without any option but to physically remove herself [from his presence].”
The suit goes on to claim that multiple women have been subject to the same sort of treatment and that Innocean leadership has “permitted and cultivated a pattern of behavior that created a sexist and intimidating work environment.”
A former Innocean employee who spoke to Adweek on condition of anonymity described experiences similar to those outlined in Guenier’s lawsuit. She said Springer would frequently yell at his female employees, threaten to fire them and make sexually inappropriate comments in the presence of male colleagues.
Seoul, South Korea-based Hyundai Motor Company launched Innocean in 2005 as its own in-house global marketing communications division. The agency later signed other clients, went public in 2015 and acquired Kia’s agency of record, David & Goliath, last December in an attempt to expand its presence in the auto market.
A Hyundai Motor America spokesperson declined to comment for this story. Global representatives based in the company’s Seoul headquarters have not responded to requests for comment, nor have its listed contacts for other regions around the world.
Both law firms involved in the case have not responded to phone calls seeking additional comment.
Springer joined Innocean as creative leader in 2016 after spending more than 20 years in top creative roles at agencies including FCB and Deutsch. He worked on Volkswagen’s 2011 viral hit “The Force,” which remains history’s most-watched Super Bowl ad.