Lawsuit Against Prestigious J.Walter Thompson Advertising Agency Alleges Racism and Sexism

Erin Johnson, Chief Communications Officer for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, has filed a lawsuit accusing chairman and CEO Gustavo Martinez of making “constant racist and sexist slurs” demeaning to women and people of color. She also alleges that Martinez touched her inappropriately and made threatening references to rape. According to the lawsuit, which seeks back pay and punitive damages, the company responded to her repeated complaints by reducing her pay and job responsibilities and placing her on paid leave. Further, she contends that the advertising agency retaliated against a top female executive for complaining about his “abusive” behavior.

Johnson-quoteIronically, the agency is credited with having hired the first female copywriter in the industry, Helen Lansdowne Resor, who later went on to become a creative director. Johnson began working for the company in 2005, and said that after Martinez took over in 2015, she found it “virtually impossible” to present the agency in a positive light due to his behavior. Other allegations listed in the 28-page complaint include Johnson’s claim that no action was taken after she repeatedly voiced her concerns to company leaders at both JWT and WPP, including Laura Agostini, global chief talent officer and head of HR.

Martinez, born in Argentina and raised in Spain, is fluent in five languages and the first Hispanic CEO of a global advertising agency. In response to Johnson’s allegations, he said “I want to assure both our clients and my colleagues that I believe I lead this company with a collaborative and collegial style and did not create the kind of working environment that has been described in the complaint.”

JWT’s parent company, British-based WPP, which represents clients such as Coca-Cola, HSBC, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Shell and Wal-Mart, reported profits of 11.53 billion dollars in 2014. On February 25th, attorneys for the company began conducting an enquiry of potentially relevant correspondence regarding these issues, but say they have found nothing to substantiate her claims.

Johnson warned that if Martinez’s “comments were publicized, JWT would suffer serious consequences, including losing important clients.” Attempts have been made to gauge client response to the allegations. However, Johnson & Johnson and Shell Oil declined to comment, while calls to other clients, including Kellogg’s, Unilever, and Coca-Cola were not returned.