Martin Sorrell Addresses JWT Lawsuit, Acknowledging Sexism Is an Industrywide Problem

WPP CEO takes issue with Maurice Lévy's comments

At the 4A's Transformation conference in Miami today, WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell wasted no time diving into one of the industry's most buzzed-about topics: the case against former J. Walter Thompson CEO Gustavo Martinez over alleged sexism and racism and its implications for the industry as a whole. 

Sorrell, who spoke via satellite from London, acknowledged that the industry has a major problem with racism and sexism. He said, "We mutually agreed that [Martinez] would resign" after JWT chief communications officer Erin Johnson filed a lawsuit against the former CEO alleging that he routinely made racist comments and joked about raping female colleagues.

"Whether you believe that Gustavo was innocent or guilty—which has yet to be determined in the court of law—in the court of public opinion, he has been judged guilty," Sorrell said. "We thought it was in the interest of the company that he resign and be replaced [as global CEO] by Tamara Ingram."

When asked whether Johnson would return to JWT, Sorrell said, "It's up to her whether she wants to come back to the company or not."

In a 4A's presentation on Tuesday, Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy called the Martinez incident a "one-time mistake" and said, "I don't believe what happened at JWT is endemic of what's happening in our industry." But Sorell said he "violently" disagreed with Lévy.

"Maurice has a habit of ignoring the facts," he said. "When we get to senior levels of management, the number of women drops, unacceptably, to a third [of all executives]. We're putting in programs for improvement, training people internally and externally on gender and racial bias. It's not just looking at the charges against Gustavo Martinez, it's looking elsewhere in the industry."