J. Walter Thompson’s Chief Communications Officer Erin Johnson filed an explosive lawsuit in New York Federal Court today. It charges her boss, Global CEO Gustavo Martinez, with sexual harassment and routinely making racist and sexist slurs within the agency’s offices and other public venues in front of numerous witnesses and even on tape.
Martinez issued a statement through parent company WPP: “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.”
In her complaint, Johnson said that Martinez subjected her “and other employees to an unending stream of racist and sexist comments as well as unwanted touching and other unlawful conduct.”
She recounted one incident that occurred last May at the company’s New York offices where Martinez approached Johnson’s desk and told her “to come to him so he could ‘rape’ [her] in the bathroom,” that was nearby. “He then grabbed Johnson around the neck with an arm and began laughing.”
Later that day, the complaint alleges, “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 complaint also references a separate incident where Martinez allegedly told an agency employee that one of the firm’s senior female global executives “needed to be ‘hog-tied’ and ‘raped into submission.” Martinez allegedly did not like the executive because she was “too bossy and too American and that she should shut up her mouth.”
Johnson also alleges that Martinez on numerous occasions touched her inappropriately, including grabbing her by the throat and back of the neck, rubbing her shoulders and pushing her.
The suit also spells out examples of Martinez using slurs about people of color and Jews. At one gathering of senior agency executives, including Stefano Zunino, Brent Choi, Lynn Power, Lorenzo Vallone and Douglas Fajardo, Martinez allegedly referred to a U.S. Customs agent’s countenance as a “Guatemalan monkey face,” a reference to his dark-colored skin.
Johnson also charged that Martinez “regularly makes anti-Semitic remarks.” Her complaint referenced a senior-level meeting in London where Martinez said he and his wife disliked living in Westchester County, New York, because he “hate[s] those fucking Jews.”
Johnson said in her legal brief that she notified officials at JWT and WPP of Martinez’ transgressions because she feared that word of them would leak, causing a loss of reputation and clients to the firm. When she confronted Martinez with his own bad behavior, she alleged that he “ignored and mocked” her concerns.
Johnson also said she complained to the Chief Talent Officer at JWT, Laura Agostini, about the CEO’s “unwanted touching.” According to Johnson, Agostini replied that Martinez touched her “based on his affection for her and implied that therefore his conduct was acceptable.”
Johnson also said that Agostini witnessed Martinez making racist remarks, including referring to African-Americans as “black monkeys and apes,” as well as some of his statements about rape. Johnson followed up with the Chief Talent Officer on several occasions to see what, if anything, was being done to address her concerns.
“No one, however, took steps to correct Martinez’s conduct or otherwise demonstrated any inclination to stop his behavior,” she charges.
Johnson also said in her court filing that she asked for advice from a WPP PR executive while on a trip to London. She thought perhaps a WPP lawyer should talk to Martinez about his behavior. The executive, Johnson alleged, “warned her that if she complained about Martinez, her career would be adversely affected, that she would be 'exposed' and that Martinez would 'find out'."
Johnson also alleged that the firm retaliated against her for raising issues about Martinez’s behavior and denied her “significant opportunities and reduced her compensation.”
On Feb. 22, Johnson said in her brief that she sent letters to JWT, WPP and Martinez (defendants charged in her complaint) indicating that she believed she had been subjected to unlawful discrimination and retaliation. Shortly thereafter, she was put on paid leave.
In addition to a ruling in her favor, Johnson wants back pay, compensatory and punitive damages and reinstatement.