This is the second time this year—and it’s only March—that a CEO from a major advertising agency has become embroiled in controversy over racist or sexist remarks.
The CEO of the Interpublic Group agency Campbell Ewald, Jim Palmer, was fired in January, days after Adweek’s AgencySpy blog leaked an offensive email sent internally by a white creative director inviting staffers to celebrate ”Ghetto Day.”
This week, one of the WPP conglomerate’s oldest and largest advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson, replaced CEO Gustavo Martinez after a longtime employee accused him in a lawsuit of making disparaging comments about African-Americans and Jews, engaging in unwanted physical contact, and speaking about raping female staff.
Are we back to the Mad Men days in which blatant racism and sexism ran rampant on Madison Avenue? Or has it always persisted in the advertising world—the ugly part of agency culture that nobody talked about anymore, until now?
The advertising world isn’t entirely bereft of diversity. And it has its share of strong female leaders—including one, Tamara Ingram, who was promoted by WPP on March 17 to replace Martinez at J. Walter Thompson.
But the latest scandals underscore the fact that diversity and tolerance are still lacking at the highest levels of the industry. We just don’t shine the same spotlight on it anymore. Instead, the public has turned its attention to the dearth of diversity in sectors like banking and technology.
We should be watching ad agencies closely, though. It’s an untrusted industry, but it shapes us more than we realize. It influences what we buy, where we travel, who we vote for, how we see society—and how we see ourselves. And hundreds of billions of dollars a year are poured into it.
Advertising has come a long way since the 1950s. More campaigns than ever before feature same-sex couples, biracial families, women working outside the household, groups from diverse backgrounds, and people with disabilities. But the people behind the ads are just as important as those who appear in it. After all, their biases shape the messaging.