Agencies have rushed to condemn an “appalling”, “divisive” and “shocking” news report from The Daily Mail directed at Jo Wallace, global creative director of J. Walter Thompson (JWT) after a workplace tribunal was (partly) won by two former employees who claimed they were discriminated on the basis of their sex.
In May 2018, JWT had one of the worst gender pay gaps among top agencies in the UK. This sparked a heavy-handed staff rebalancing and, ultimately, a multi-year workplace tribunal. Meanwhile, the troubled agency was merged with Wunderman to form Wunderman Thompson as part of some wider consolidations in owner group WPP.
The announcement of the pay gap in 2018 sparked strong condemnation and hyperbole, externally and internally. Executive creative director Lucas Peon described the pay gap as “really, really horrible”, and added: “In the World Cup of sucking at pay gap numbers, we made the final.”
One of those speaking out against the embarrassing findings was Wallace at a Creative Equals conference. She said: “One thing we all agree on is that the reputation JWT once earnt, as being full of ‘white, British and privileged’, has to be obliterated.”
Some employees felt targeted by these comments and issued a complaint to HR days before five redundancies were made. After years of legal wrangling, two former employees, Chas Bayfield and Dave Jenner, partly won a UK tribunal ruling. It found that they were indeed discriminated against on the basis of their sex, claims they were also discriminated against for their age, sexual orientation and race were dismissed, however, marking only a partial victory for the pair - both straight, white males in their 50s. Three remaining staff who were offered redundancies reportedly settled out of court.
On Friday, July 23, The Daily Mail detailed the case, speaking to Chas Bayfield and a representative of Jenner about their fears of being discriminated against at the agency. Bayfield said: “There is a part of me that feels guilty that these laws, that were put in place to protect minorities in the workplace as they should be, have protected a couple of middle-aged, straight, British men. But it is also right the judge found in our favor because it wasn’t right. I definitely agreed that there had to be a way to address the diversity issues, but I don’t think it was gone about the right way.”
However, The Mail’s retelling of events heavily focused on Wallace and her diversity agenda, despite the workplace claim not being directed against her, or her having any hand in the redundancy process – a line that the Mail mentions at the conclusion of the report. It repeatedly mentions that Wallace is gay – the word is used seven times, including twice in the headline – and shared multiple images of her wearing a bikini. Furthermore, detailed is her “£1.2m house in trendy east London”.
These are among some of the elements that have been condemned in the industry. LGBT+ ad group Outvertising said it was “angered by The Daily Mail’s divisive reporting of the JWT sex discrimination case” and added that it “unnecessarily brings Jo Wallace’s sexual orientation into a nuanced and complex narrative”.
Holding company WPP also said it was “appalled by the reporting of this case by some media and the personal attacks on Jo Wallace are totally unacceptable”, and continued: “We continue to make clear to the press that Jo had nothing to do with the redundancy decisions.”
The Creative Equals group, home of the contentious ‘obliterated’ speech, said it complained to The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) about the “sensationalist coverage of this case [which] ignores that fact that Jo spoke at our Rise conference alongside JWT executive creative director Lucas Peon”.
Finally, Wunderman Thompson said: “We are shocked and appalled by the personal attacks aimed at Jo and condemn this behavior. We ask that people treat Jo with respect and kindness.”
The agency said it will be appealing the tribunal’s ruling.