Advertising CEO Sued for Alleged Comments About Rape and Jews

In a lawsuit, J. Walter Thompson employee Erin Johnson claims that Worldwide Chairman and CEO Gustavo Martinez, pictured here, made sexist and racist comments. D Dipasupil/Getty

A New York advertising CEO is facing a lawsuit over gender discrimination that outlines his alleged comments about a female employee being "raped into submission," as well as derogatory remarks made about Jewish and black people.

Erin Johnson, the chief communications officer at J. Walter Thompson (JWT), filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in United States district court in New York on Thursday. In the complaint, she alleges that her boss Gustavo Martinez, worldwide chairman and CEO at JWT, regularly made remarks and actions that were racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or otherwise troubling, and that the company did nothing to stop him.

"Martinez has made it impossible for her to do her job," the complaint states. "Presenting JWT both internally and externally in a positive light has become virtually impossible given Martinez's apparent comfort in making racist and sexist slurs, even on tape."

Martinez was born in Argentina and grew up mostly in Spain, according to the complaint and his LinkedIn profile. The profile also says he "is the first Hispanic CEO of a global advertising agency." He became global president of JWT in 2014 and chairman and CEO in 2015, and he was previously an executive at McCann Worldgroup and Ogilvy & Mather.

The complaint states that Martinez "subjected Johnson and other employees to an unending stream of racist and sexist comments as well as unwanted touching and other unlawful contact."

Johnson alleges that Martinez once described a customs agent as having a "Guatemalan monkey face." He also allegedly referred to customs agents as "black monkeys" and "apes" because they "don't know how to use computers." Johnson claims that on at least three occasions Martinez said he disliked living in the New York's Westchester County because of its Jewish residents. He once allegedly said he "hate[s] those Jews," using an expletive, and told a reporter that there were "too many Jews" in Westchester.

Douglas Quenqua, a reporter for the advertising industry publication Campaign, wrote in an article on Thursday following the news of the lawsuit that he was the reporter mentioned in the complaint. "The tape wasn't rolling yet when Gustavo Martinez said something I literally couldn't believe," he wrote. "In passing, he told me he had moved to Westchester briefly, but it hadn't worked out. 'Too many Jews,' I thought I heard." The reporter went on to say that he at thought he had misheard Martinez and dismissed the remark, especially because Johnson "was sitting right there."

Johnson claims that her boss also once said that a certain female employee should be "hogtied" and "raped into submission."

One day in May 2015, when Johnson says she confronted Martinez about his comments, she claims he responded that "American women are too sensitive." Minutes later, he allegedly said to her, "Come here, so I can rape you in the bathroom," and "grabbed Johnson around the neck with his arm and began laughing. Later that day…Martinez asked Johnson in front of other women which female staff member he could rape."

Martinez also allegedly rubbed Johnson's shoulders and stroked her face, and on two separate occasions, grabbed apples she was eating, took bites of them and returned them to her, the complaint says.

Not only did Johnson have to endure the behavior and remarks, she alleges, but also after she complained about them, she allegedly lost out on certain opportunities, and Martinez "significantly cut" her bonus.

"Martinez's abusive and harassing behavior was well-known to defendants, yet no remedial action was taken," the lawsuit says.

On February 22, Johnson's lawyers apparently notified JWT of her discrimination and retaliation claims. The company placed her on paid leave and said it would investigate the matter. Days later, the company apparently said it was nearly finished with the investigation, according to the complaint.

Now Johnson is suing for retaliation and unlawful gender discrimination and is seeking restored responsibilities and compensation for the earnings she allegedly lost. She is also seeking "compensatory damages for her mental anguish, emotional distress and humiliation," plus punitive damages and attorney fees. The complaint does not specify an amount.

Johnson has been at JWT since 2005 and remains there, despite the lawsuit. (It is not clear if she is still on paid leave.) As her complaint notes, PR News named her one of the Top Women in Public Relations. She has been chief communications officer there since 2008.

Adweek named JWT Global Agency of the Year in 2009. The firm says it is "the world's best-known marketing communications brand," dating to 1864.

Martinez said in a statement Thursday that he is aware of the allegations and lawsuit.

"I want to assure both our clients and my colleagues that I believe I lead this company with a collaborative and collegial style and did not create the kind of working environment that has been described in the complaint," he said. "I welcome the opportunity for the truth to come out and to present more details about this matter at the appropriate time during legal proceedings."

JWT also issued a statement: "We received the lawsuit on Thursday and take these kinds of allegations very seriously. Gustavo Martinez has asserted that the allegations are false. Following our standard practice, we are undertaking a thorough review of the matter and will comment further at the appropriate time and in the course of litigation."

In an internal company memo sent to senior executives at WPP, JWT's parent company, on Thursday, the company said it had been investigating the allegations since February 25 and had not yet found anything to substantiate the claims, a person with knowledge of the memo tells Newsweek.

Johnson directed Newsweek's inquiries to her lawyer, who declined to comment further or make Johnson available for an interview.

Martinez told Newsweek to contact a spokesman for WPP. That person was not available for additional comment.

The media have drawn comparisons between Martinez's behavior and that of advertising executives from an earlier era, as depicted on the television show Mad Men. In the very first episode of that series, a character asks, "Have we ever hired any Jews?" Another replies, "No on my watch.… You want me to run down to the deli and grab somebody?"

Martinez's LinkedIn profile says, "Martinez leads with emphasis on J. Walter Thompson Company's greatest asset—its people. His key goal is to cultivate a nurturing and creative environment for a network of 10,000 proud and passionate employees across 200 offices in more than 90 countries."

The lawsuit also names J. Walter Thompson U.S.A., J. Walter Thompson Company and WPP as defendants.

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