Publicis Groupe's CEO Maurice Levy ignited social media after his comments that JWT's sexual harassment lawsuit was a "one-off" during the 4As Transformation Conference in Miami last week. Now, Levy is clarifying those remarks through an internal memo sent to all Publicis employees.
In his statement, Levy says his 4As response was related solely to "the JWT problem, a WPP agency, and the allegedly racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist comments made by its CEO, such as they were reported in the complaint filed by Erin Johnson."
He goes on to say that these allegations, "if true, are jaw dropping. To such an extent, that in my opinion, they can only represent the unforgivable fault of one man, as opposed to an industry-wide evil. On this point, I maintain my position, and I dare hope that I am right. I can't for one second imagine that it is common in our industry (or in any other) to make jokes at every turn about women, blacks and Jews, and to speak of a subject as sensitive as rape, as it was depicted in Erin Johnson's complaint.
"Should a case of this nature be brought to our attention in our own Groupe, we would react strongly and without delay." He also encourages everyone to read the complaint, saying "it is appalling."
Levy believes that for Publicis Groupe, "gender equality and diversity across the industry have mattered for decades and we will continue to pursue them restlessly. Our values are strong and generous -- leaving no room for such behaviors that tarnish our industry."
While Levy attempted to tone down one controversy, he fanned the flames on his ongoing rivalry with WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, who last week at the 4As said he disagreed "violently" with Levy's take then on the JWT lawsuit, saying: "Maurice has the habit of ignoring the facts in getting to his opinions." Levy countered in his memo that Sorrell "once again showed his extraordinary level of hypocrisy," adding that "facts are truly stubborn things."
"This situation began in his company, in one of his largest agencies," Levy continued in his memo, "with a CEO, therefore someone who is meant to lead by example."
Erin Johnson, Levy said, "did everything possible to have her story be heard, without it being so, even from the very person who should listen -- the Chief Talent Officer. A situation that has been going on for over a year, and his response as CEO of the largest advertising company globally was nothing but a dilatory tactic, attacking ad hominem one of his colleagues during a flagship industry event, while my name was neither mentioned nor implied in the question."
He goes on to say that he originally took the high road.
"We could have expected more dignity from him, especially as during my interview, I refrained from damning WPP, whose reaction in this affair is all but glorious. I know that we don't have the same values, no matter the light we shed on our behaviors. Our actions are living witnesses to our values, whether in business, family and moral matters, or in regard to compensation. Rarely will Martin Sorrell have so well deserved the description given to him by David Ogilvy."
That last reference -- according to a Campaign magazine article written awhile back -- had Ogilvy, commenting on the WPP takeover of his namesake agency: "The idea of being taken over by that odious little jerk gives me the creeps." But Campaign was clear that the comment was hearsay and could not be confirmed.
WPP issued this statement in response to Levy's latest comments on the issue:
"From what we've seen and heard, his comments, which were publicly reprimanded immediately by Nancy Hill, head of the 4As, stirred up a hornets’ nest, which Levy is now attempting to deal with. Levy is clearly attempting damage limitation for ill-judged remarks at the 4As Conference. We are glad to hear he is attempting to reverse his original position. After all, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."
This story has been updated with a response from WPP.