Levy or Sorrell: who’s right about sexism in adland?

The furore about sexism in the ad industry held centre stage at last week’s 4A’s conference in the US (probably to the relief of media agency agency execs who feared it would be all about rebates) and first intop the lists were those two rather venerable knights, Maurice Levy of Publicis Groupe (who was there) and WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, who wasn’t.

Levy set things rolling by averring that l’affaire Martinez at WPP’s JWT was an isolated instance – “one man’s mistake.” He probably thought he was being nice to WPP. Sorrell, speaking by video link, leapt in, saying he “violently disagreed,” observing further that Levy “has a habit of ignoring the facts.” Leaving aside that this is over-heatedly personal and arguably inaccurate – does Levy have a history of ignoring the facts about sexism as opposed to other facts? – who’s right?

There’s sexism and sexual harassment in adland as there is in most other businesses – financial services being a noteworthy example. But JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez, who’s resigned following a number of serious allegations (racism as well as sexism) by JWT communications chief Erin Johnson, is accused of far more than this. Grabbing your female employees by the throat and saying you’re going to rape them, as alleged, is in a different league. Which is why people, used to historical sexism, were so shocked. To that extent, Levy is right because this case is exceptional.

Does that make Sorrell wrong? Did he mean that Levy was ignoring the broader issue – about sexism in the ad industry generally? Discussion of this has reverted to the issue of gender inequality, fewer women in top ad jobs, especially creative positions. There’s a race issue here too, of course. It’s arguably in Sorrell’s interest to point the discussion that way. It takes it beyond Martinez – and the question of why Sorrell thought he was a fit and proper CEO of JWT – and puts Levy’s Publicis Groupe in the dock as, by most industry measures, Publicis has fewer women in leading positions than rivals WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic. It’s unfortunate for Levy and co. that his swish terrace above the Champs-Élysées (above) was being used in his absence to publicise a porn business, a client of Publicis-owned agency Marcel. Those French…

Levy may or may not be a dinosaur in these matters. But in this particular instance he’s correct and doesn’t deserve the ordure heaped upon him.

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