Will More Ad Industry Whistle Blowers Come Forward After JWT CEO’s Resignation?

Case could inspire, or cause chilling effect

Agency executives and industry watchers remain divided about whether more ad industry whistleblowers will come forward in the wake of Erin Johnson's claims of sexism, racism and harassment by former J. Walter Thompson global CEO Gustavo Martinez.

Martinez resigned from JWT last Thursday and was replaced by Tamara Ingram, chief client team officer at JWT parent WPP Group. The shake-up followed a discrimination lawsuit filed earlier this month by Johnson, the agency's longtime communications chief. In the filing, made in a federal court in Manhattan, she alleged that Martinez, who became JWT's CEO a year ago, joked about raping employees and made racist comments about black people and Jews. Along with Martinez, both JWT and WPP were named as defendants. Johnson also alleges that when she reported Martinez's behavior to higher-ups, he slashed her bonuses and excluded her from meetings.

Johnson, who was placed on paid leave after filing the claim, is widely viewed as a brave whistleblower whose example should serve as an inspiration for others.

Avi Dan, an industry consultant who manages agency reviews for global clients, believes that Johnson's willingness to come forward should make it a bit easier for other discrimination targets to take action. "You'll see more people [especially millennials] coming forward when there are issues," he said. "Younger people are not willing to put up with it."

Shannon Wilkinson, CEO of Reputation Communications, an online reputation management firm, agrees, saying the industry should expect to see more people speaking up in the coming year. "Many agency CEOs and senior leaders are stumbling in the diversity department," she said. "Many such actions will come from women, who face lower pay, the glass ceiling and are less represented on boards, operational committees and leadership teams."

To some extent, the tide may already be turning, Wilkinson said—and senior managers are starting to feel the consequences of their actions. "Consider Lululemon, whose founder and CEO stepped down after making a statement the company's customers interpreted as being critical of their bodies. Mozilla's board removed its highly qualified CEO after widespread public protest over his stated opposition to gay marriage. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong suffered severe backlash after offending a female employee with a well-intentioned comment—he survived, but only after issuing an even more public apology."

Nancy Vonk, an ad industry veteran who runs Toronto creative leadership consultancy Swim, said she is hopeful that the latest developments in the case will encourage company leaders to create safer workplace environments where employees feel comfortable speaking up when harassment occurs. "The unwritten rules that have been at play from the beginning of time need to be torn up, and new ones that support employees need to be displayed in neon in our workplaces," said Vonk. (While creative chief at Ogilvy Toronto a decade ago, Vonk helped raise awareness of sexist comments by WPP's iconic copywriter Neil French. Her coming forward was a key factor that led to French's resignation.)

Regarding future cases like WPP's, one prominent female executive, who spoke on terms of anonymity, doubted whether this story will encourage would-be whistleblowers. She predicted that lower-level employees will remain fearful of retaliation—further, the only way to ensure they voice their concerns is to guarantee anonymity (the exec cited the fact that Johnson's bonuses were slashed before she was put on leave).

Vonk shares such fears. "I can picture many thinking, if a star employee like Erin Johnson was penalized for it, why would I fare any better?" she said. (When Johnson's suit first came to light, WPP appeared to circle the wagons, issuing a statement in which Martinez denied the charges. As the heat began to rise last week, however, the holding company changed gears and mutually agreed to split with JWT's embattled leader.)

"I'm glad that they chose to part ways with their CEO and appoint a new one with such excellent credentials," Vonk added. "But we may see their initial response did damage that can't be repaired with some clients and employees."

For the time being, existing JWT clients declined comment. 

Patrick Coffee contributed to this article.

This story first appeared in the March 21 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.