The Year in Scandal

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Rape jokes, racism and rigged bids, oh my!

2016 was the year that wouldn’t end—and neither did the scandals that rocked the industry. Here’s a look back at how it all unfolded. With each entry, just remember how we all thought, "At least it can’t get any worse, right?" 

Feb. 5
The fallout from 2015’s scandals continues into the new year, as Volkswagen rolls out a new European campaign with DDB Berlin aimed at rebuilding consumer trust (and pivoting the conversation away from its emissions scandal). Fortunately for the ad industry, there’s no evidence that agencies knew about Volkswagen’s lies, so they can’t be held accountable

March 10
J. Walter Thompson’s Worldwide Communications Director Erin Johnson files a lawsuit accusing CEO Gustavo Martinez of sexual harassment and making rape jokes and racist comments. Martinez denies the accusations, and WPP backs him. A week later, Martinez resigns, though the lawsuit continues. WPP Chief Client Officer Tamara Ingram is promoted to CEO at JWT. By the end of the month, WPP lawyers are claiming that while Martinez did make rape jokes, he did so to "lighten the tension."

March 14
In a bad month for JWT, the managing director of the agency’s Korea office is arrested in Seoul on corruption charges and accused of bribing clients.

May 20
As the JWT/Erin Johnson lawsuit drags on, WPP lawyers petition the court to dismiss it as "frivolous." Meanwhile, it’s sparked an industry-wide conversation about gender equality.

June 7
An eight-month study commissioned by the Association of National Advertisers concludes that media agencies were receiving kickbacks for placing ad buys with particular outlets. The study also claims that some agencies and holding companies buy media and then resell it to clients at a 30-90 percent markup. The ANA follows up the reports with new guidelines calling for "greater transparency" in the media buying process.

June 16
The strange case of Bill Grizack finally comes to a close, when the ad man is sentenced to 5-7 years in prison for defrauding agencies like McKinney with falsified contracts. The fake business, ostensibly with big-name clients like Coca-Cola and McDonald's, would have totaled nealy $270 million—if it had ever existed. While it's shocking that Grizack got away with his fraud for years, it's disconcerting that he was able to keep finding work with agency after agency even after criminal charges had been filed against him.

June 29
Rapp Global CEO Alexei Orlov resigns amid accusations that he made disparaging remarks about women and Jews. How original. Literally the day before Orlov's resignation, Rapp had issued a statement calling the allegations "gross mischaracterizations" made by Greg Andersen, Rapp's former U.S. President. After making those claims, Andersen had been let go in April and filed a wrongful termination suit the following month.

July 5
Still reeling from 2015’s E. coli outbreaks, Chipotle struggles to get back on its feet with some adorable advertising. But CMO Mark Crumpacker doesn’t help when he’s arraigned on charges of cocaine possession

July 7
In March, Singapore-based Grey for Good won a Bronze Lion at Cannes for its "I Sea" app that purported to help users scan the ocean for refugees. Turns out the app didn’t really work, and it was removed from Apple’s App Store. After enduring what it called "unfair, unrelenting" attacks impugning its motives, Grey Group returns the award.

July 29
In what should have been a typical interview with Business Insider, Saatchi & Saatchi Chairman Kevin Roberts says he doesn’t worry about gender equality in the industry. "The fucking debate is over." Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Levy drops him like a patate chaude, and Roberts resigns four days later.

Aug. 22
Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte embarrasses the entire country on a scale worthy of a presidential candidate. But the ad industry is on the side of the angels, and sponsors Speedo and Ralph Lauren drop him unceremoniously. They need a bit of vitriolic encouragement from their customer base first, though.

Nov. 8
Despite the best efforts of progressively-minded agencies, independent creatives and some say the candidate himself, Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. It’s proof that no matter how egregious a scandal might be, it’s nothing that can’t be overcome by tenacious tweeting, systemic racism and a blizkiy soyuznik (that’s Russian for "close ally").

Nov. 16
Korean prosecutors raid the offices of Cheil’s Sports Strategy Planning Division as part of the ongoing investigation into the country’s president and kickbacks paid to her close friend and spiritual advisor.

Dec. 5
Kevin Roberts is back, baby. He’s Down Under and doubling down on some old talking points.

Dec. 6
Documents unearthed by the ANA probe of media buying end up in the hands of the Department of Justice, triggering an investigation into alleged bid-rigging by agencies that favor their in-house production companies over independent firms. As the investigation grows, every holding company has been contacted by the DOJ. Expect this scandal to show up on next year’s list, too.

Dec. 13
Judge J. Paul Oetken finally denies WPP’s motion to dismiss Erin Johnson’s lawsuit.