'Sexist' and 'Racist' JWT CEO Resigns Amid Lawsuit

J. Walter Thompson (JWT) CEO Gustavo Martinez officially stepped down a week after a lawsuit accused the former executive of repeated sexist and racist behavior, including calling Black people “monkeys” and “apes,” referring to Jewish people as “those f****** Jews” and telling at least one female employee he wanted to “rape [her] in the bathroom.”


The accusations highlight the advertising industry’s long-standing diversity problems. JWT’s parent company, WPP lists only 23 percent women on their board, and there is no webpage for senior executives. And on JWT’s site, of more than 150 employees listed under its “People” section, less than a third are women and just one person is Black.

J. Walter Thompson is an advertising agency headquartered in New York and has nearly 10,000 employees in more than 200 offices in 90 countries,according to WPP’s company profile.

In the DiversityInc Top 10 (link to top 50 page), women make up 46.1 percent of management and 35.9 percent of senior management positions. They also take up 27.6 percent of board seats. Blacks hold 7.3 percent of management and 5.6 percent of senior management roles, as well as 7.3 percent of board seats.

No WPP agency has participated in the DiversityInc Top 50 Survey in the past 15 years the Top 50 includes some of the world’s largest marketers, such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Marriott International, andColgate-Palmolive.

Erin Johnson, JWT’s chief communications officer, filed the lawsuit against Martinez, JWT and WPP. Johnson joined the company in 2005 and was a direct report of Martinez. Johnson said that she submitted numerous complaints in writing and verbally to JWT and WPP before filing the lawsuit, none of which were taken seriously. In fact, Johnson alleges the company “retaliated against [her] by denying [her] significant opportunities and reducing her compensation.”

An Argentina native, Martinez started with JWT as global president in 2014 and became CEO in January 2015. According to the lawsuit, this is when Johnson’s successful career became progressively more difficult.

The lawsuit cites an especially troubling incident that took place in Miami during a company retreat last May. The night before a meeting, a party at the hotel’s nightclub hosted many Black patrons. According to the suit: “At the start of his presentation, Martinez described the hotel as ‘tricky.’ He explained that he ‘found different and strange characters in the elevator.’ He further explained, ‘I was thinking I was going to be raped at the elevator,’ but ‘not in a nice way.'” Martinez also made it a point during the meeting to reiterate to his employees, “Check all your luggage” and “all your stuff” due to the large number of Black people who attended the hotel party.

And, per Johnson’s charges, the situation only worsened after the Miami presentation. Two days after the meeting Johnson approached Martinez and told him his comments about rape were inappropriate, to which Martinez told her “American women are too sensitive.” Shortly after this remark, according to the suit, Martinez’s behavior intensified:

“Martinez walked towards Johnson’s desk, situated in an open seating plan directly across from the men’s bathroom. In front of numerous employees, Martinez told Johnson to come to him so he could ‘rape [her]’ in the bathroom. He then grabbed Johnson around the neck with his arm and began laughing. Later that day, Martinez interrupted a meeting among multiple female employees, including Johnson. Martinez asked Johnson in front of the other women which female staff member he could rape.”

The Miami incident is crucial to the case because there is video footage of the meeting that could potentially prove Johnson’s case. However, WPP does not want the footage admitted in court because it contains “the development and testing of a process that is highly confidential and proprietary to JWT.”

WPP CEO Martin Sorrell sent a memo to employees earlier this month to say that it “found nothing, as yet, to substantiate these charges.”

Johnson’s lawyers slammed WPP’s response to the lawsuit and its refusal to cooperate in regards to the tape that may very well substantiate the charges: “Only a sham investigation would permit defendants to ignore such evidence and to intimidate potential witnesses by contending that there was ‘nothing to substantiate’ Johnson’s charges.”

In addition to the Miami incident that may be on tape, the lawsuit cites a slew of other comments Martinez has made to Johnson and witnessed by other employees, including referring to Johnson as his “work wife” on numerous occasions. Shortly after his appointment as CEO, Martinez allegedly told a female global executive, who he had described as “too bossy” and “too American,” that she needed to be “hogtied” and “raped into submission.”

The comments about the attendees of the hotel party were not the only disparaging remarks Martinez made against Blacks; he also called them “monkeys” and “apes” and said they don’t know how to use computers.

Martinez was known to make anti-Semitic remarks as well. At a work lunch in London, he said he had hated living in Westchester County, New York, because he “hate[s] those f****** Jews.”

Following the filing of the lawsuit, Johnson was put on paid leave and worked from home. Martinez remained in his position until his resignation.

Prior to stepping down as CEO, Martinez made a statement regarding the situation: “I am aware of the allegations made against me by a J. Walter Thompson employee in a suit filed in New York Federal Court. I want to assure our clients and my colleagues that there is absolutely no truth to these outlandish allegations and I am confident that this will be proven in court.”

An outside investigator has been hired to look into the allegations against Martinez and the company.

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