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Publicis CEO Rips Martin Sorrell Over Sexism in Ad Industry

Maurice Levy, Chairman & CEO of Publicis Group, Addresses A Press ConferenceMaurice Levy, Chairman & CEO of Publicis Group, Addresses A Press Conference
Maurice Levy, Chairman & CEO of Publicis Groupe, photographed during a press conference on Dec. 19, 2013 in Mumbai, India.Photograph by Abhijit Bhatlekar—Mint Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Maurice Lévy, chief executive of Publicis Groupe, has come out firing against WPP founder and chief Martin Sorrell over the issue of gender discrimination within the advertising industry.

Specifically, Lévy said that Sorrell’s rebuttal of his own comments that sexism was not endemic in the ad world “showed his extraordinary level of hypocrisy,” he said in a press statement released on Tuesday.

“Rarely will Martin Sorrell have so well deserved the description given to him by David Ogilvy,” Lévy said in a nod to the famous bust-up between Sorrell and the founder of the Ogilvy & Mather agency widely regarded as the “father of advertising.” Ogilvy was reputed to have called Sorrell an “odious little s**t” during WPP’s takeover of Ogilvy & Mather in 1989.

This escalation of words further deepens the fallout from the scandal surrounding Gustavo Martinez, the ex-CEO of J. Walter Thompson, a WPP-owned agency (which is a relationship that provoked labels of hypocrisy from Lévy). Martinez resigned in mid-March after the agency’s chief communications officer Erin Johnson accused him in a lawsuit of making “constant racist and sexist slurs” that demeaned women, blacks and Jews, and subjecting her to unwanted touching.

That court case has touched off a storm of discussion around the prevalence of sexism and harassment inside ad offices. At a conference last week, Lévy said that the Martinez incident was an isolated one. “I don’t believe what happened at JWT is an example of what’s happening in our industry,” Mr. Lévy said, as reported by Ad Age.

That comment sparked off a round of opposition from prominent ad execs, including Cindy Gallop, founder of Publicis’ BBH New York:

Sorrell then came out and, in his own words, said he disagreed “violently with [Lévy].” He added: “He has the habit of ignoring the facts.”

Lévy has sought to explain himself by saying Publicis had equal parts men and women on its supervisory board, and placed 38% women in executive positions. “I can’t for one second imagine that it is common in our industry (or in any other) to make jokes at every turn about women, blacks and Jews, and to speak of a subject as sensitive as rape, as it was depicted in Erin Johnson’s complaint,” he said.