WPP's Martin Sorrell: Sexism is pervasive in the agency world

After a morning filled with good-natured conversations and a distinct lack of hard questions, WPP chief Martin Sorrell took the stage at the 4A’s annual “Transformation” conference via a video feed. The 30-minute chat with Ken Auletta, writer at The New Yorker, was devoted almost entirely to the case of ousted JWT CEO Gustavo Martinez, who resigned from the WPP agency after being sued for widespread racial and sexual harassment.

Sorrell conceded that the issue of sexism in the agency world is pervasive and that the Martinez case does not represent an isolated incident. His remarks stood in direct contrast to Publicis CEO Maurice Levy, who, during a separate talk, said that Martinez was “one man” who made a mistake. Social media and other speakers jumped on that statement, including DDB North America CEO Wendy Clark, who argued that sexism and racism were  rampant at every level of the agency industry.

“I would agree with Wendy Clark,” said Sorrell. “I disagree violently with [Levy.] He says the JWT, Gustavo Martinez situation was a one-off. He has the habit of ignoring the facts.”

Sorrell said that among the 190,000 people who work across WPP, half are women in junior and middle management positions. The percentage of women in senior management positions drops to a third.

Sorrell has made diversity a priority at WPP, he said: Late last year, he wrote in the company’s sustainability report that it was a key part of the company’s growth plan: “And with women accounting for 60 percent of university graduates and responsible for 80 percent of purchasing decisions, this is an issue of access to talent and access to markets too.” (See how WPP stacks up against other holding companies on diversity here.)

Sorrell said that Martinez and he came to the agreement together that the latter would resign — three days after the suit was first brought by JWT’s global chief communications officer Erin Johnson. “That was in the interest of the company, its clients and its people,” he said, adding that Martinez was not forced to resign. “Whether you believe Martinez was innocent or guilty — that is yet to be determined in the court of law — in the court of public opinion he has been judged and found guilty.”

Auletta also asked if Johnson, who has been on a paid leave since the suit was brought, could come back to the company. “It’s up to her if she wants to come back,” said Sorrell. “It’s up to her.”

The suit was brought on March 10, and alleged, among other things, that Martinez joked about raping Johnson, and made disparaging remarks about Jewish people and black people. (You can see the whole list of allegations here.) Martinez resigned March 17 and was replaced by chief client officer Tamara Ingram. WPP then announced that it would retain the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP to “conduct an independent investigation into the allegations in the complaint.” The investigation is ongoing.