Commentary

'Do You Renounce Satan?' -- And Other Things Not Said At The 4A's Conference

Do you remember the brilliant baptism scene at the end of “The Godfather”? For my money, the genius intercutting makes for the best-edited montage in film history. In an almost feverishly rich and thrilling way, director Coppola juxtaposes images of the meticulous rituals involved in simultaneously carrying out both the Roman Catholic Church baptismal ceremony of Michael Corleone’s baby godson (as Miguel becomes a literal godfather) with the execution of the deadly Mafia hit he commissions in order to become godfather of the family “business" (his own baptism by fire).

“Do you renounce Satan?” the priest asks Michael from within the church at the end, as we see the blood-spattered corpses littered around town.

He does.

So forgive me for being overly dramatic, but I couldn’t help but think of that scene as I monitored the live Twitter feed of the 4A's Transformation meeting that took place earlier this week in Miami.

It turned out that the timing was a bit surreal, as the talk of Erin Johnson’s ongoing discrimination suit against JWT and WPP was still the main topic of conversation, something the industry ate for breakfast, lunch, and cocktails.

(I’d add an early-bird dinner too, but no one wants to admit to being old.)

Here’s my earlier take.

Indeed, I am still receiving personal messages from employees too scared to speak publicly for fear of reprisal. Most mentioned their own personal struggles with similar bigotry in the ad business and lack of appropriate response from HR. And they suggest that if this kind of persistent racism, sexism, and white-male dominance is allowed to continue, the industry will be sunk from within.

The industry’s facility with manufacturing imagery of enlightened multiculturalism for clients while achieving internal levels of “you can’t make this up” hypocrisy makes a great analogy for the baptism scene.

All of this sets the scene for day one of the 4A's conference. For example: Gustavo Martinez, who resigned last week from JWT in a “mutual agreement,” was originally scheduled to speak in a session about “empowering Latinas.”

He was gracious enough to cancel ahead of time.

Meanwhile, (I am not making this up) JWT was hosting a “Female Tribes” event in London: to launch its proprietary work, along with a film called “Her Story,” produced with the BBC, celebrating women.

I’ll let the Web site copy speak for itself:  “This living study, conducted globally, makes J. Walter Thompson Company the agency with the most insight, knowledge and research about the largest consumer category in the world: women.”

It goes on about the need to recognize female capital in the world.

Given the timing (and that Erin Johnson appears as a contact on the site) JWT/London’s tweets promoting the screening were majorly awkward. Soon, however, the work of the crisis PR team started kicking in, when it was reported that  Martinez' replacement, Tamara (“Hurricane Tam”) Ingram introduced the event by saying: “Diversity and inclusion will be at the top of my agenda,” and "companies don't value women enough."

And then there was the keynote address by Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy. In response to the inevitable question from the press about the Martinez debacle, he said what happened is a “one-man mistake,” and "not a fair representation of the industry.”

This response was not well–received either in the Twittersphere, or at the conference. By the next day, when Sir Martin Sorrell, head of WPP, addressed the question in an afternoon Skype session, it was enough of opposites’ day that he took the opportunity to knock Levy for having the temerity to defend the WPP holding. Sorrell said he disagreed "violently" with Levy, noting "Maurice has a habit of ignoring the facts and not letting the facts interfere with his analysis."

Still, in getting to the inevitable “rape-guy” questions about Martinez, Sorrell had learned his crisis PR response points well. He said that 50% of WPP employees are women, but that when you get to the senior ranks at the holding company, the number drops to 33%. That sounds surprisingly good. He also acknowledged that the number of senior-level Hispanics, African-Americans and LGBT people was "unacceptably low."

All this minimized the problem brilliantly. While adding a tacit defense of Martinez, saying he has yet to be tried in court, Sorrell also said that it was Erin Johnson’s decision to take a leave, and "it's up to her if she wants to come back to the company or not."

While the case is active, Johnson cannot, and would not, return calls to comment on that matter. But meanwhile, Sorrell makes it seem that the company is doing everything it can to make her comfortable while she had the unseemly need to sue it.

The spin was enough to cause whiplash.

But while we all readjust our cervical spines, there were some encouraging signs. One decidedly non-tone-deaf response came from Nancy Hill, president and CEO of the 4A's. Other people in her position might have tried to remain as neutral as Switzerland, in an effort to appease the gamut of 4A's members.

Instead, she set a sane and rational tone, addressing the issue in her opening remarks, recognizing that the alleged behavior not only happens, but “happens more frequently than we think." (After Maurice Levy’s pronouncement of his “one-man” theory, Hill also took to the podium to disagree with him.)

She listed a number of the 4A's efforts created to address such problems, but acknowledged that "real change has to start with you, at the top. If you're the CEO, you are the chief diversity officer. Look at salaries. Is there a gap? If there is, fix it.”

The issues brought up by Johnson’s suit are not easily answered by monitoring percentages of women and diverse employees. If there is no support system, if employees from diverse backgrounds are made to feel like outliers, they are not going to succeed, no matter how much the numbers improve. Nor will there be any real progress if these hires feel that HR turns a deaf ear, or responds insensitively, to their difficulties.

Altogether, it’s going to take massive amounts of what Johnson allegedly requested for Martinez: sensitivity training.

Later that day, Wendy Clark, the newly installed CEO of DDB North America, appeared to be headed in that direction. She said that the agency is introducing anti-bias training “that will coach 2,000 employees by the end of the year.”

That’s the kind of inside-out thinking required of ad leaders in the next few years.

Because despite a world of spin, the reality is that the JWT case is a black eye not only on the agency, but the entire industry -- at a time when advertising cannot afford to have any more problems. These kinds of lawsuits are a morale-sinker, yes. But most important, they kill the most crucial thing advertising brings to life: creativity.

14 comments about "'Do You Renounce Satan?' -- And Other Things Not Said At The 4A's Conference".
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  1. chuck husak from august, lang & husak, March 24, 2016 at 7:05 p.m.

    With you on this, Barbara.  But isn't sexual smarmy-ness a corporate problem -- with advertising having no claim to cornering the market?  Gotta believe what happened with Martinez is duplicated elsewhere with consistency -- in the tech sector, manufacturing, financial, etc.  
      

  2. George Parker from Parker Consultants, March 24, 2016 at 7:36 p.m.

    His Gnomeship acknowledged that WPP's senior staff is only 33% women. However, WPP has training programs in place to improve this. In other words, once the women have been brought up the the level of men, they can take on these more dificult tasks. How reassuring. No wonder he pulls down $90 million a year!

  3. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), March 24, 2016 at 8:09 p.m.

    It's hard not to be jaded about this whole thing, because nothing has really changed. I remain convinced that the attitude that's driving change is not a real desire, but a sense that the true leaders of agency holding groups "allow" it. This trickles down through the entire organization, so that talk of diversity and empowerment is just lip service.

    This further leads to the perception of agencies (especially the large ones) as out of touch and behind the times. They can throw money at problems. Bu the thinking hasn't changed.

  4. Jim English from The Met Museum, March 24, 2016 at 9:53 p.m.

    Sorrell may have a point about Maurice Levy's selective memory.  The $100 million gender discrimination class action suit filed against Publicis by women at subsidiary MSLGroup I believe was settled only a few months ago.

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 25, 2016 at 8:37 a.m.

    wow. thanks for the great info, Jim English! 

  6. Don Perman from self, March 25, 2016 at 9:18 a.m.

    Great column.  It sure does seem that all the old demons remain in the industry. They just give them updated outfits as needed on a crisis-by-crisis basis.  They must have a large wardrobe.

  7. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 25, 2016 at 10:38 a.m.

    Sensitivity training doesn't even tickle their toes. The agency is broken up. WWP is gone. People will find their way since clients will still need an agency. Also, no agency can be a conglomerate, yeah the legal thing, which has allowed too much centralized power with no recourse starts at home. (Of course the WWA does not have a lock on this problem of over Capitalistic power brokers which creates more complexity to keep complexity and profits higher than necessary to be really rich enhancing the status quo.) And whoever thinks a one woman change can't be as sexist as a man? Satan is just another name for mysogeny. So wonderfully expresses Barbara.

  8. scott goodson from strawberryfrog , March 25, 2016 at 11:11 a.m.

    Great article! There are some interesting lessons about true equality beyond our borders. True change and equality will happen when agencies provide women with greater opportunities, equal pay, but also the progressive working conditions that enable women to choose both a professional life and a family life, not only one. It was only when guaranteed parental leave (with the right to return to your position) was introduced in, for example Scandinavia and Quebec, that more women there were able to achieve greater equality in the work place.

  9. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, March 25, 2016 at 5:45 p.m.

    I was about to make a comment suggesting that the only valid method to introduce real change to the malecentric attitudes in our lifetime would be mandatory lobotomies for every male in the workplace, when I saw Scott Goodson's much more rational suggestion:

    "It was only when guaranteed parental leave (with the right to return to your position) was introduced in, for example Scandinavia and Quebec, that more women there were able to achieve greater equality in the work place."

    Legislation such as this, especially if strictly enforced, would improve the gender gap on a number of levels, including; ... the obvious immediate benefit to those requiring parental leave; a simple excuse for those males in charge who want to do the right thing, but allow themselves to be bullied by Male Only peer-pressure; precedent-setting for further gender-equalizing legislation.

    I apologize if I'm restating the obvious, but this battle is lizard-brain level stuff, which will require a lot more than a few "toe tickling" sensitivity training sessions - thank you, Paula Lynn - to eradicate, or at least drive back under a large rock.   

  10. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, March 25, 2016 at 5:48 p.m.

    I forgot to include this:  Great article!  The Godfather reference was especially brilliant.

  11. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 25, 2016 at 6:26 p.m.

    Thanks, Chuck! That scene is on You Tube. What a masterpiece. Michael was reborn as The Godfather of the "famiglia" and his humanity died.

  12. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., March 25, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.

    Terrific analysis, Barbara. It's time for the holding company Godfathers to "hit the mattresses."

  13. David Vossbrink from self, March 26, 2016 at 2:10 p.m.

    Isn't time for clients to hold agencies accountable for their actions? How about new RFP requirements that ask agencies for their statistical profiles of agency staff, reports of discrimination complaints and settlements, and effective policy commitments to meaningful diversity? Of course, that would suggest clients are also committed to the goals of fairness and equity.

  14. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, March 26, 2016 at 4:48 p.m.

    David-- I think clinets are more committed to those goals than agencies are. 

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