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J. Walter Thompson allegations threaten to drag this venerable agency’s reputation through the dirt

By Jeremy Lee, columnist

March 14, 2016 | 4 min read

“We need to look at making sure that we have the right role models at senior management levels – that’s really important." That was the view of James Whitehead, the joint chief executive of J. Walter Thompson London, last Tuesday in an interview for The Token Man series for The Drum. And amen to that, you might think. Whitehead’s words were laudable, if slightly pat, stuff – and part of a flurry of agency activity to mark International Women’s Day.

Gustavo Martinez

Gustavo Martinez

But little was Whitehead to know that just two days later the effluent would really connect with the fan when JWT’s global chief executive (and ultimately Whitehead’s boss), Gustavo Martinez, pictured, was accused by an employee in a lawsuit of shocking, almost unspeakable, acts of sexism, racism and anti-Semitism – accusations that that he has since denied and described as “outlandish”.

Aside from making the “right role models at senior management levels” assertion look incredibly unfortunate, the accusations – and the allegations that previous complaints about his behaviour to both JWT and WPP were ignored (something it has denied) – threaten to drag the reputation of the world’s first, and arguably most venerable, advertising agency through the dirt.

Of course Whitehead, a likeable-enough cut from the traditional JWT cloth, wasn’t to know any of this when he did his interview with Caitlin Ryan to promote the various impressive initiatives that JWT had undertaken in its London office. And given that Martinez intends to contest the lawsuit with the apparent backing of JWT and WPP, it now looks like that the US courts will decide what really happened. But it’s not likely to be a particularly edifying sight and is in danger of casting the wider industry in a bad light.

But the following furore does seem to show the fragility of leadership and the problems with ensuring a correct succession plan – Martinez has only been in the top job for just over a year, replacing the safe hands of Bob Jeffrey. To have found himself in the position of having to contest the charges he does suggests that either he was the wrong person for the job, or that he has managed to upset this particular member of staff to make up such extraordinary claims on a truly epic scale. Equally, reports that the managing director of JWT AdVenture Co in South Korea, part of the JWT network, is under investigation for ‘alleged embezzlement’ has piled on the pressure on the beleaguered network.

The whole Martinez furore has provided a distraction from the industry’s annual shindig to Austin for the SXSW festival. Now in its 30th year, the ad industry has only relatively recently decided that it is now de rigeur to attend, tweet and blog. The actual tangible value of what the few days in Austin actually provide to clients is up for debate, however.

Nonetheless it’s undoubtedly a big draw. President Obama even dropped going to the funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan to show his face. Given that the only president to show up at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity has been Clinton and came a decade after he left office maybe shows those incessant #SXSW tweets aren’t so jarring as they first seem. They also seem to show that Obama is thinking of his post-White House career – similar to something that may or may not also be on the mind of Gustavo Martinez, depending on the outcome of the court case.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @JezzaLee

Agencies Social Media J. Walter Thompson

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