If anyone was in any doubt about the real reasons behind the management changes at MSLGroup this week then a tweet from CEO Olivier Fleurot on Wednesday quickly cleared up the confusion.
Fleurot simply posted the following quote from Warren Buffet: “If you lose money for the company, I'll be understanding. If you lose a shred of the company's reputation, I'll be ruthless.”
Coming on the same day Fleurot announced Jim Tsokanos, president of the Americas for MSL, would be leaving the company to be replaced by chief client officer Renee Wilson, the implication was clear. And it didn't quite tally with the official line presented in the press release to accompany the announcement, which stated Tsokanos was leaving MSLGroup to “move to a more entrepreneurial venture.”
Tsokanos, of course, was named several times in an ongoing $100 million lawsuit filed against MSLGroup and its parent company Publicis alleging the agency and holding company paid female professionals less; did not promote women at the same rate as male counterparts; and conducted discriminatory demotions, terminations, and reassignments for female staffers during the firm's 2009 reorganization.
The court documents describe instances of Tsokanos behaving in a derogatory manner towards female employees, including regularly making “comments about the appearance of his female subordinates” during conference calls and meetings and multiple inappropriate remarks “of a sexual nature.”
“To go a day without the head of our office staring at my chest in an inappropriate manner…just doesn't happen,” stated one employee about Tsokanos, who also allegedly said he “need[ed] a big swinging dick to lead the Midwest” while searching for someone to head the region in 2008. He is also accused of verbally attacking two female SVPs during a meeting in 2010, having a “hostile” attitude towards working mothers with young children, and telling former MSL EVP Wendy Lund in 2009 he was “imagining her in a porn movie.”
It is important to note this case is ongoing and these are purely allegations at the moment, allegations MSLGroup said at the time it would “continue to defend vigorously against all the plaintiffs' claims and look forward to persuading the court to dismiss...just as the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] dismissed them in 2010.”
However, as pointed out previously, this whole episode can't have played well with MSLGroup's clients, especially large CPG clients such as Procter & Gamble that have women as a core part of their constituency. It also can't have been easy for other senior executives at the firm when they were out in the market representing their brand, especially with the prospect of the legal action potentially running on for years and hanging over the head of the agency.
So Fleurot's press release quotes that “We accomplished a lot together,” “Jim felt this was the right time to pursue a new challenge that brings him closer to clients and meets his entrepreneurial passions,” and “We have been discussing this for some time and worked on a transition together" clearly don't tell the whole story. In truth, the agency had little choice but to part company with Tsokanos to limit the damage before the whole operation fell apart. Like Buffet, Fleurot was "ruthless."
Officially, Wilson doesn't take on her new role as president of North America at the agency until September 10, and in the intervening time Fleurot told MSLGroup staff in an email there was to be a "short handover period with Jim, designed to be as seamless as possible for our clients and our people." But my understanding is that "Elvis has already left the building" and that any handover was very short indeed, perhaps not surprisingly given Fleurot's tweet on Wednesday, which has now strangely disappeared from his Twitter feed.
Wilson will transition out of her current global chief client officer remit in the coming weeks and get to grips with her new role running the North American business. The working mom is very highly regarded by her clients and in the wider PR industry and it is great to see another woman in charge of a significant American PR operation. Her challenge now will be to restore confidence in the agency and transfer her undoubted client expertise into the very different skill sets required of someone who runs a $150 million business.