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Madison Avenue Grapples With Gender Discrimination as Publicis Sends Senior Executive on Leave of Absence

Kevin Roberts Placed on Leave by
Courtesy of Publicis Group

Madison Avenue crafts many of the thousands of commercials it makes each year for female consumers, the idea being that women have a greater say over how families spend their hard-earned dollars. For some reason, the ad industry is having a harder time figuring out how to value the women who work in its many agencies.

The issue flared anew this weekend after France’s Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s biggest ad-agency conglomerates, said Saturday it had sidelined a prominent senior executive, Kevin Roberts, after remarks he made to the online publication Business Insider sparked outrage among advertisers and industry executives. Roberts told the outlet in a story published Friday that debate about gender equality is “over,  and that he spends little time considering the problem.

He also suggested that many ad companies fail by forcing on female employees a definition of success that means they must take on senior managerial roles. “Rather than holding ambitions to progress into the higher echelons of the c-suite, many women — and men — simply want to be happy and do great work, which management can often overlook,” he said.

Publicis, which owns storied agencies like Leo Burnett and Fallon Worldwide along with the large Publicis Media collection of ad-buying agencies, said in a statement over the weekend that Roberts would take a leave of absence immediately.  “Promoting gender equality starts at the top and the Groupe will not tolerate anyone speaking for our organization who does not value the importance of inclusion.,” said  Maurice Lévy, chairman and CEO of  Publicis Groupe, in a prepared statement, noting the company “works very hard to champion diversity and will continue to insist that each agency’s leadership be champions of both diversity and inclusion.” Roberts can only return, he said, after a supervisory board at the company further evaluates his standing.

The issue may be a sensitive one for Publicis because Lévy himself recently found himself on the wrong side of it. Speaking about a recent lawsuit at WPP-owned agency JWT filed by a female employee against the agency’s CEO alleging racist and sexist behavior, Levy said the accusations did not represent “what is happening in our industry.” He later walked back his comments.

To be certain, the industry has boasted of some very prominent female executives like Shelly Lazarus, the longtime head of WPP’s Ogilvy & Mather; Susan Gianinno, North American chairman of Publicis Worldwide; Laura Desmond, who ran Publicis’ Starcom Mediavest; or Wendy Clark, chief executive of Omnicom’s DDB North America. At the same time, indications have surfaced over the years that there is room for growth. A 2014 survey by The 3% Conference, an organization that promotes the idea of having more female creative leadership in ad agencies, found nearly half of the ad industry consists of female employees, but only 11.5% of creative directors in ad agencies are women.

The industry has been on edge over the issue of gender discrimination since the March filing of a lawsuit by Erin Johnson, a longtime public-relations executive at JWT that alleged an “unending stream of racist and sexist comments as well as unwanted touching and other unlawful conduct” by Gustavo Martinez, then the agency’s CEO. Martinez would step down from his post just a few days later, but the lawsuit continues to make its way through the courts. WPP said his departure was “in the best interest of the J. Walter Thompson company,” a reference to the agency’s formal name.

Other industries related to advertising are grappling with similar problems. In a notable situation, Roger Ailes, the longtime chairman and CEO of 21st Century Fox-owned unit Fox News, left his post late last month in the wake of sexual-harassment allegations leveled at him by Gretchen Carlson, a former Fox News anchor who filed suit against the executive, and other women who complained to the parent company about inappropriate behavior in an internal review conducted after news of the legal action surfaced. Ailes has denied all the allegations.

Roberts commands a wide following on Madison Avenue. He was CEO of Publicis-owned Saatchi & Saatch between 1997 and 2014, and more recently was its chairman as well as “head coach” at the agency’s parent, tasked with inspiring employees. He is among the industry’s most respected executives, having logged time at Gillette, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo. His 2006 book, “Lovemarks,” talks about new ways of considering how  products and advertisers can connect with consumers.