Ad Execs Behaving Badly: A Look at 2016’s High-Profile CEO Snafus

It's already been a big year for firings and forced exits

Even by advertising's typically high standards of executive churn, 2016 has been a C-suite bloodbath. And it hasn't happened quietly.

The past seven months have seen some of the industry's most dramatic executive exits in years, and they have largely followed a similar pattern: Male CEOs are accused of enabling, committing or justifying bad behavior involving women or minorities, and after it hits the media, they're shown to the door. 

While there have certainly been some similarities among the cases, the context of each is obviously unique. As Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts prepares for unexpectedly early retirement after making dismissive comments about gender bias, we decided to look back at some of the more noteworthy exits we've seen in 2016.

Here's a timeline of the year in fallen agency executives:

January: Jim Palmer, CEO, Campbell Ewald

         

         Campbell Ewald

In January, IPG terminated Campbell Ewald CEO Jim Palmer, who had spent 25 years with the agency and served as its chief executive since 2013.

The holding company did not specify the reason for his firing, but the decision closely followed AgencySpy's publication of a months-old email in which a white executive creative director at the agency's San Antonio office invited other staffers to attend a "Ghetto Day" themed party. In this message, the creative joked about the party featuring "Ghetto music, Malt 45s at lunch and, of course, drugs and prostitution," and also included a '70s-era photograph of two black men in an urban setting. USAA, which was the San Antonio office's largest client, immediately cut ties with the agency and later sent its business to MullenLowe.

Palmer's firing likely stemmed from his initial comments about having dealt with the issue when it first arose in October 2015, though he hadn't fired the creative responsible. Palmer and the creative director both promptly lost their jobs, and sources told Adweek that Palmer was largely punished for not telling IPG management about the situation before it appeared in Adweek's AgencySpy blog.

March: Gustavo Martinez, Global CEO/Chairman, J. Walter Thompson

         

         Courtesy of WPP

J. Walter Thompson global communications chief Erin Johnson shocked the ad industry and the business world at large when she filed a discrimination lawsuit against her boss, agency chairman and CEO Gustavo Martinez.

The suit alleged that Martinez had repeatedly joked about rape, compared black people to monkeys and once told a reporter that he disliked living in Westchester County because it had "too many Jews." WPP initially allowed Martinez to defend himself, calling the accusations "outlandish." But he resigned exactly one week later as WPP chief client team officer Tamara Ingram stepped up to replace him.

The case continues to make its way through the court system, with WPP lawyers filing a motion to dismiss Johnson's suit after her legal team publicly released a video including footage of Martinez joking about being "raped…and not in the nice way" at a Miami hotel during a 2015 event including various JWT employees and clients.

June: Alexei Orlov, Global CEO, RAPP

Flash forward to the June resignation of RAPP chief Alexei Orlov, who led the Omnicom direct marketing agency for two years after running Volkswagen's marketing operations in China. He stepped down approximately six weeks after the agency's former U.S. president, Greg Andersen, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.

The suit accused Orlov of "destructive" behavior, claiming that—among other things—he referred to multiple women as "fat cows," declined to promote at least one female executive within the agency because she was "too attractive" to be taken seriously, and fired Andersen after he encouraged other employees to file complaints about the CEO with the agency's human resources and legal departments.

That case, like the one filed against Martinez, continues to make its way through the court system as the two parties work toward a contentious a resolution. In the meantime, Orlov has become an adviser to Dale A. Adams, chairman and CEO of Omnicom's DAS Group of Companies.

Marco Scognamiglio, a 17-year RAPP veteran who served as evp of global clients and president of the agency's operations in Europe, Africa and Asia, replaced Orlov in the CEO role the day he announced his resignation.

July: Andy Fletcher, CEO, Bailey Lauerman

         

         Courtesy of Bailey Lauerman

Omaha agency Bailey Lauerman, which is perhaps best known for its ads promoting Nebraska tourism, parted with CEO Andy Fletcher last month after more than four years.

His departure came two months after the state's auditor of public accounts concluded that agency and client had gone $4.4 million over budget on that publicly funded campaign between 2012 and 2016. The audit claimed that the Nebraska Tourism Commission had "effectively misused taxpayer money" by failing to track related expenses and charging the public with such items such as beer, cigarettes, a $44,000 charge for a motivational speaker and $18,000 used to help one of the Commission's members move into a new home.

This news came after the state fired its tourism director, who managed its relationship with the agency—and Fletcher's exit followed that of evp and general manager Rich Claussen, who left Bailey Lauerman after more than 30 years when the audit went public.

An agency spokesperson told Adweek that neither Fletcher nor Claussen left as a direct result of the controversy, but no other reason for their exit was offered.

August: Kevin Roberts, Global Chairman, Saatchi & Saatchi

         

       Kate Ayrton

This week's abrupt resignation of Roberts, who spent nearly two decades with the Saatchi & Saatchi organization, is only the latest of these headlining leadership changes.

His case was different, however, in that it did not concern a legal matter or discovery of incriminating documents, but rather stemmed from comments he made to Business Insider reporter Lara O'Reilly.

In a frank Q&A, he asserted that the conversation regarding gender inequality in the advertising industry is "over," claimed that he doesn't think about gender balance at all in overseeing the Saatchi network, and slammed industry advocate Cindy Gallop as a shameless self-promoter, accusing her of "making up a lot of the stuff to create a profile."

Publicis Groupe quickly distanced itself from Roberts' opinions, releasing statements from both CEO Maurice Levy and Saatchi & Saatchi global CEO Robert Senior, then forcing the chairman to take a "leave of absence" in order to quell the controversy. He announced his resignation several days later but stopped short of apologizing for his comments.