London tribunal rules men axed after director vowed to ‘obliterate’ J Walter Thompson’s reputation of ‘being full of straight, white men’
Two white male creative directors at a top London advertising agency have won a sex discrimination claim after a female director vowed to “obliterate” its Mad Men reputation of being full of straight, white men.
Chas Bayfield and Dave Jenner, both in their 50s and renowned creative directors at the J Walter Thompson (JWT) agency, were among five men axed from the agency, which is part of WPP, because bosses “urgently” wanted to address its poor gender pay gap, a tribunal court ruled.
Their dismissals came just days after the pair raised concerns about a conference presentation titled “Crisis: The Mother of All Change” by Jo Wallace, a creative director appointed to help the agency lose its boys club reputation, and executive creative director, Lucas Peon.
The firm revealed a median gender pay gap of 44.7%. The London Central tribunal heard that the pay gap report had sent “shock waves” through the firm as it highlighted a serious lack of female representation.
Wunderman Thompson’s 2017-18 gender pay gap report found that women at the company earned 55p for every £1 that men earn when comparing median hourly pay. “In the World Cup of sucking at pay gap numbers, we made the final,” Peon said at the conference, according to The Drum at the time.
In the talk, Wallace said: “One thing we all agree on is that the reputation JWT once earned — as being full of white, British, privileged [men] — has to be obliterated.”
Her comment was made alongside a slide saying, “White, British, privileged, straight men creating traditional above the line advertising”, which then appeared crossed out at the mention of the word “obliterated”.
Much of the presentation was uncontroversial, said the tribunal judgment, while also hard-hitting. JWT described the gender pay gap figures as “horrible” and “embarrassing”. It stated that the firm had been “actively recruiting fresh female talent” and that it was “vital that we do what it takes to ensure these women remain in the business and rise to the top”.
Two days later Bayfield wrote an email, which read: “I found out recently JWT did a talk off site where it vowed to obliterate white, middle-class straight people from its creative department. There are a lot of very worried people down here.”
The leadership said there was a misunderstanding and that the idea was to obliterate the firm’s reputation, not white males, but the following week, although the exact timing was disputed, it was decided that the two creative directors and three other senior creatives had been selected for redundancy.
However, the redundancy scoring was a “sham designed to ensure the predetermined decision to dismiss the claimants was seen to be justified” according to Employment Judge Emery.
In an 80-page judgment, the tribunal concluded that “the decision to dismiss was related to the fact the claimants are men, that this was a conscious motivation in the decision to dismiss, for reasons including the desire to improve the gender balance in its senior creative team [and] the improvement to the gender pay gap figures which would result in their dismissal”.
Claims of harassment related to the claimants’ sex also succeeded but claims relating to age, sexual orientation and race discrimination did not.
Bayfield has said he has since struggled to find work while Jenner has left the industry, adding that they have been perceived as whistleblowers in the ad world.
He said: “We were concerned about diversity and female and minority representation but we were also worried about our job safety – the word ‘obliterated’ is a powerful word.
“The gender pay gap was mortifying for the company – because it was an awful gap – and their approach was to go gung-ho on who they perceived to be the enemy. They rigged up a kangaroo court and fired us.”
The employment judge Mark Emery said the men were treated in such a hostile manner it amounted to “victimisation”.
In his judgment, Judge Emery said: “Both Ms Hoyle and Mr Peon were angry from the outset of the meeting, and it continued in this vein. Voices were raised by Mr Peon and Ms Hoyle, and Mr Bayfield and Mr Jenner were forced to defend their position. Their explanations were not at the time accepted and their points of view were angrily dismissed. [There was a] failure to accept that they had any valid concerns about the presentation … their views were regarded as unacceptable.”
The judge said Peon unfairly decided to make the men redundant before carrying out an assessment of other senior creatives to see who should be axed on the merit of their work.
“We concluded there was a consensus amongst senior management team that Mr Bayfield and Mr Jenner had overstepped the mark with their comments in their emails and at the meeting, that there was anger at what [the company] considered a challenge to their plans on the gender pay gap issue,” Emery said.Advertisement
“We considered that this factor, their sex, was on the mind of [the company] when determining to dismiss them, an equal factor with that of the anger at their complaints.
“This would immediately assist the gender pay gap issue within the creative team, it would rid the team of two creative directors who were, because of their sex, seen as resistant to change; also, female creative directors were exactly what [the company] were seeking.”
A woman in a similar position would not have faced the same backlash, the judge said.
Bayfield and Jenner are in line to receive compensation from Wunderman Thompson (a successor to JWT) after winning claims of sex discrimination, victimisation, harassment and unfair dismissal.
However, they lost claims of age discrimination, race discrimination, and sexual orientation discrimination after the judge ruled these factors had no impact on their dismissal.
After the ruling Bayfield said on Friday: “We were concerned about diversity and female and minority representation but we were also worried about our job safety – the word ‘obliterated’ is a powerful word. The gender pay gap was mortifying for the company – because it was an awful gap – and their approach was to go gung-ho on who they perceived to be the enemy. They rigged up a kangaroo court and fired us.”
The three other male creatives who were sacked settled out of court.
Wunderman Thompson’s latest gender pay gap report (2020-21) recorded a gap in median hourly earnings of 21.4%, down from 44.7% in 2017-18.