JWT London discrimination case could seal its fate

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

The decision by former JWT creatives to seek legal advice on discrimination is the last thing this network needs.

With J Walter Thompson London declaring that any redundancies are "handled fairly, lawfully and without any form of discrimination", the dispute between the agency and a group of senior creatives who were made redundant earlier this year could get very interesting indeed.

If that means JWT plans to fight accusations that it discriminated against the straight, white, British men on the basis of their gender, sexuality, race and nationality, we could be about to see an interesting legal test case and watch JWT’s internal machinations and reputation opened up to public scrutiny. The damages for unfair dismissal are capped at about £80,000; however, if the group of creatives can prove that they were discriminated against, there is no limit to the damages they could receive. Some believe that this could cost the agency millions.

For Tamara Ingram – who was parachuted in as JWT global chief executive as a supposed safe pair of hands after the sorry Gustavo Martinez affair, which did little to embellish JWT's reputation – the dispute, which has been running since the summer, not to mention the attendant publicity, must be going down like slow sips from a cup of cold sick. For WPP’s chief executive, Mark Read, it provides yet another headache that he’ll want to alleviate, perhaps hastening his decision on what to do with this rather problematic network.

Having acted swiftly to sort out Y&R by merging it with the more future-facing VML, do the circumstances at JWT present Read with the final nail he needs to seal its coffin? Certainly, it begs questions over how the situation was allowed to arise and how much of the speech given by JWT creative Jo Wallace while on stage with executive creative director Lucas Peon, and which prompted the dispute, that the agency’s management was privy to in advance.

If the provocative words about wanting to "obliterate" JWT’s reputation as an agency full of white, British men was designed to deflect from the agency’s appalling gender pay gap, it certainly succeeded. But, upon reflection, perhaps not in the way that the agency will have wanted. 

Quite what JWT’s clients – many of whom will be white, British men – make of the debacle, we’ll have to wait and see. But it has certainly given agency land something to sit back and watch – albeit while peeking through their fingers – and it's also likely to mean that people will need to be more measured with their language in the future, at least in public. Maybe it’s all too late for JWT, however.

Jeremy Lee is contributing editor at Campaign

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