Fired WPP exec sues, alleging ‘boys club’ culture, lack of support and misleading conduct

Carmel Williamson, the former managing director of WPP’s Team Red, an agency created for the company’s Vodafone account, is taking the holding company to court and seeking more than $400,000 in damages. In legal documents filed with the Federal Circuit Court, she alleges that harassment and a “boys club” culture ultimately led to her being dismissed after just six months in the role and in need of psychological treatment.

Paul Everson, managing director of WPP creative agency Wunderman Thompson (which was J Walter Thompson at the time of the allegations, before its merger with Wunderman last November), is also named in the court case, which WPP is contesting.

Williamson alleges that Everson fabricated allegations against her when he accused her of making one of his team members cry, undermined her, and failed to support the transition of the Vodafone account from JWT to Team Red.

Williamson served in the managing director position for six months, from February to August last year | Source: LinkedIn

Williamson previously worked as director of client services for Omnicom’s brand consultancy Interbrand in New York, and stepped into the Team Red role in February last year, but was dismissed in August. She alleges that this was the culmination of discrimination based on her age (she was 35-years-old at the time she held the position) and gender.

Her time at the WPP agency, and consequent dismissal, left her humiliated, distressed, experiencing anxiety, and suffering from rashes on her neck and chest, loss of appetite, weight loss, sleeplessness and joint stiffness, according to court documents. Following her dismissal, Williamson began seeing a psychologist.

The case – first reported by The Australian yesterday – is not the only one currently before the courts involving a WPP agency. Last month, it was revealed that former Mediacom Melbourne GM Rob Moore was taking the company to court, alleging he had been made redundant after revealing a depression diagnosis.

Team Red was not yet established or operational when Williamson was appointed, but was designed to transfer the work of all WPP agencies on the Vodafone account, including JWT, to one dedicated agency.

Vodafone had given its business to JWT just the year before after a short stint with Cummins & Partners.

Williamson alleges that just two of the 11 JWT staff on the Vodafone account were transferred over to Team Red, and that there was a “lack of support for Team Red and her role” by the agency and Everson. She alleges Everson said words to the effect of “she is not going to get her hands dirty”, “she has unrealistic expectations”, “she just wants to lead from an ivory tower”, and “who does she think she is”, on one occasion.

The resistance allegedly continued, and when Team Red launched in May 2018, behind schedule, Williamson says Everson continued to directly engage with Vodafone without her knowledge, despite being directed not to in response to repeated Vodafone complaints that it was “confusing” and “inappropriate”.

Williamson claims that the Team Red staff who did move across from JWT were ordered to perform work for their old agency on accounts like Nestle on three separate occasions without her consent. However, WPP counters that this was reasonable given the impact their redeployment had on the remaining JWT team when urgent work came up.

Team Red was set up to consolidate WPP agencies’ work for Vodafone

Williamson claims she made repeated complaints to Kate Walker, WPP’s group client director, with whom she had daily meetings, about the lack of support she was receiving, and WPP’s “boys club” culture, which Walker allegedly agreed with. Walker offered to appoint Williamson an executive coach to “assist her to cope with the situation”.

The court documents note the “emotional toll” WPP’s alleged lack of action was having on Williamson. Specifically, she alleges that WPP failed to effectively respond to her complaints, prevent undermining behaviour and lack of support being directed towards her, require JWT to transfer its entire Vodafone team over to Team Red, and did not subject Everson or others who intimidated her to disciplinary action.

WPP and Everson deny the allegations, acknowledging that while “disagreements developed” and there was a “lack of cooperation and coordination afforded to Team Red by other agencies”, all issues were dealt with. Their defence states that “[Williamson’s] outlook, which is that [WPP] ought to have disciplined or dismissed any executive who disagreed with, or displeased, her is unreasonable and unrealistic”.

WPP also denies it failed to act, citing examples such as Everson being told to apologise to Williamson on two occasions, and agencies being directed to cooperate with Team Red.

It said that WPP’s boss Mike Connaghan, who subsequently left in October last year, had tried to get the agencies to offer more support.

“Mr Connaghan ultimately directed the other agencies that they had a period of 3 months in which to improve the degree of cooperation amongst themselves and Team Red, failing which those agencies would be excluded from any involvement with Team Red and Vodafone,” the court documents read, noting, however, that WPP had to balance the needs of other agencies and, therefore, solutions required “give and take”.

However, Williamson says she was treated differently than other managers within the WPP group. Other executives, including those at small agencies like Prism and Switched on Media, met with Connaghan on a regular basis to discuss the performance of their agencies and any issues, she says. However, her repeated attempts to get a meeting with Connaghan failed, resulting in what she believes was discrimination based on her age and gender.

WPP responded to that allegation by noting that she was not the only female managing director, and not the only MD who did not report directly to Connaghan, so therefore she did not receive different or less favourable treatment than a male employee.

On August 31, she was dismissed, and ultimately placed on gardening leave instead of working out her notice period. In a meeting, she said she felt like she had been a “target since day one”, unfairly criticised, continually subject to undermining behaviour, and that the role had been misrepresented to her.

WPP argues that Williamson wasn’t dismissed because she exercised a workplace right, but because “she lost the confidence of the principal client of the agency she was appointed to manage”.

The holding group alleges that Vodafone became increasingly frustrated about the quality and timeliness of Team Red’s services and its “hands off” approach, with the situation deteriorating despite opportunities being presented to Williamson to address the concerns.

WPP has worked on Vodafone’s account a number of times, despite its previous reputation in the market as a difficult client to work with.

“It was acknowledged in the meeting [in which she was dismissed] that [Williamson] had faced substantial challenges and that some were out of her control. But ultimately as leader of the business, she needed to take responsibility for delivery a successful outcome for the client and she was unable to achieve that,” WPP’s defence reads.

“It was a key requirement of the [managing director of Team Red] role that she build constructive working relationships with stakeholders and her inability to deal with the situation led to negative impacts on the business.”

Former WPP boss Mike Connaghan

Williamson is also alleging that WPP was misleading and deceptive in its discussions with her before she accepted the role, leading her to not pursue a role with WPP’s production company Hogarth Australia at a comparable salary, or another alternative role in the industry.

In relation to the misleading and deceptive conduct component of the case, Williamson is claiming economic loss of $110,437 (loss of chance of earnings at Hogarth, and loss of chance of earnings at an alternative position, minus her Team Red salary), plus additional damages for the ongoing loss of opportunity at a rate of $19,375 per month, and an additional $80,000 in non-economic loss for the suffering, distress, anxiety, and damage to her professional reputation.

With regards to the general protections claim, which rests on her dismissal constituting ‘adverse action’, Williamson is claiming $159,981 in damages (including her loss of salary and short term incentive bonus of $25,645), plus ongoing economic loss at $20,667 per month, and $80,000 for “hurt and humiliation, distress suffering, dislocation of life and damage to professional reputation and standing”.

This brings the total damages claimed to more than $400,000, plus the ongoing monthly loss of opportunity and economic loss payments.

In addition to damages, Williamson wants declarations that WPP has breached the Fair Work Act (and that Everson was involved), fines for both WPP and Everson, and interest and her legal costs paid.

Williamson’s case against WPP and Everson is due back in court on October 16. Since the matter is before the court, WPP declined to provide a comment.


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