Employees say they experienced racism and sexism at Zimmerman Advertising, an Omnicom agency known for clients like McDonald's and Nissan

  • Employees say Zimmerman Advertising has a culture of micromanaging, bullying, misogyny, and racism.
  • Some said founder Jordan Zimmerman told staff he’d replace them with newly let-go people if they didn’t work harder.
  • Some are anxious about returning to the office after working remotely during the pandemic.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In April, Zimmerman Advertising — an Omnicom-owned ad agency in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, known for its work with clients like McDonald’s — laid off a batch of employees in the pandemic. That day, the founder and chairman Jordan Zimmerman addressed the remaining staff on a call.

Three people on the call said Zimmerman told employees that, while they were spared, they would need to work “two and a half times harder” or he would replace them with the laid-off employees who had “begged” for their jobs.

To some on the call, the comments felt insensitive and threatening, coming at a time when they were on edge after the layoffs and when they had already been working harder during the pandemic.

Fast-forward to this March, when some employees accused the agency of pressuring them to go back to the office, regardless of whether they had been vaccinated or had high-risk family members. In some cases, employees said management threatened layoffs if they didn’t return.

Insider spoke to four current and four former Zimmerman employees across seniority levels who felt that episodes like these reflect broader cultural problems at the 500-person agency. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the agency, said they experienced misogyny, racism, bullying, and micromanaging. Two of the former employees said they quit during the pandemic for these reasons; two were laid off during the pandemic.

Several people interviewed felt Zimmerman’s culture ultimately reflects its founder. But some identified others, many of whom have been at the agency 10-plus years, as holding sway and perpetuating cultural problems. 

An Omnicom spokesperson declined to comment for this story. Zimmerman did not respond to multiple requests for comment. All but one of the individuals named in this story did not respond to requests for comment.

Zimmerman is ‘advertising’s bad boy’

Zimmerman Advertising, with its new and stylish building and its founder Jordan Zimmerman, bears all the external trappings of success.

Zimmerman founded his namesake agency in 1984 after receiving his MBA from the University of South Florida. In 1999 he sold it to Omnicom Group. Today the agency works with clients like Nissan, AutoNation, and Hair Cuttery in addition to McDonald’s. In 2017 Insider reported his agency was worth $3 billion.

In a 2016 profile, HuffPost described the agency founder as “advertising’s bad boy,” a successful, hardworking entrepreneur who, for “someone who sleeps only 4 hrs/night, he looks astonishingly fresh and radiant.”

“The Zimmerman business card has ’24×7′ printed on it because he believes that when a client needs you, you have to be there, otherwise someone else will be,” HuffPost wrote. “He believes that an insane commitment to be the best will always beat talent, hands down.”

According to a website for yacht enthusiasts, Jordan Zimmerman owns a Gulfstream G3 jet and a yacht named “Leading Fearlessly.”

Zimmerman wrote a book called “Leading Fearlessly: Transform Your Life and Find Success,” copies of which are all over the agency and are often given to new hires. He posts weekly inspirational videos with titles like “Motivation Monday,” “Winning Wednesday,” and “Fearless Friday.”

To some of the people who work at the agency, though, the atmosphere is overbearing and demands people work to excess. They said it’s common for junior employees to make $35,000 a year — less than the average $38,000 a year salary for a junior copywriter, for example, in Fort Lauderdale, according to PayScale — and to work up to 60 hours a week, including on weekends.

They said junior employees seem to rarely get raises or promotions, and turnover is high, even for the ad industry. A former employee recalled at least eight such people leaving in less than six months.

Sources described the agency as being an old-school place where managers keep a close eye on employees.

A second former employee said that in 2019 they heard from multiple colleagues that Lee Gonzalez, an agency veteran who as executive creative director was one of the agency’s highest-ranking executives, complained that since the ex-employee and their team regularly left the office at 6 p.m., they must not have enough work to do. Separately, a current employee said they heard Gonzalez’s comment firsthand.

The second former employee complained about these incidents to their manager, Max Barrios, who told them there was no problem with the team’s work but also warned them to stay on Gonzalez’s good side or she would make “your life hell.”

That same former employee reported the incident with Gonzalez and conversation with Barrios to HR, agency leaders, and Omnicom CEO and Chairman John Wren. The former staffer also reported witnessing group creative directors calling certain junior staffers “stupid” and, in several instances, making some of them cry. Two current employees also told Insider they witnessed group creative directors making junior employees cry.

The former employee said Omnicom investigated then dismissed the complaints and that the agency’s head of HR Mike Anderson and an Omnicom lawyer advised them to quit if they were unhappy.

John Wren, CEO and chairman of Omnicom, which bought Zimmerman Advertising in 1999.Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

During the pandemic, two sources said the office started pushing to get people to return to the office in June 2020 while many other companies have continued to work remotely to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Some sources said the office stayed open even after they heard several employees got COVID-19 and that the company notified only the people who sat near the infected staffers.

The first former employee said that despite being in a high-risk category, they were not given the option to work from home when they joined during the pandemic in late 2020 until a manager told them a teammate who sat nearby had gotten the virus.

Some said that while working remotely, if their Microsoft Teams status changed to “away,” they immediately got a message from a manager asking what they were working on.

Zimmerman is a known supporter of former President Donald Trump, and he told employees on a call in July that he had attended a Republican event in Florida with Gov. Ron DeSantis and then-Vice President Mike Pence, according to three people who were on the call.

Those people said Zimmerman told employees that Pence said the virus wasn’t as bad as it was being reported and that younger people are less likely to be affected. Some perceived his comments as a way to get staff back to the office.

Some insiders said they experienced racism

Some of those interviewed said they’ve heard white executives casually utter the N-word around the office.

The second former employee and a second current employee said that in separate incidents in the past three years, they heard two different white creative directors use the slur. Both sources said the slur was used jokingly but that employees who overheard were horrified.

Multiple sources also said they believed racism has seeped into Zimmerman’s work.

About a year ago, a third white creative director made an ad in a pitch for Miami-based Caribbean restaurant chain Pollo Tropical, according to the second current employee who saw it. The work was displayed in a conference room and featured an image of a white man dressed in a suit, the employee said. When a cursor moved over him, the man’s skin color darkened and he got a Rasta hat with dreadlocks, the employee said.

The employee said that, to them and many others, the image looked like blackface and was offensive but that it stayed up until the pitch was over.

A third former employee, who is Black, was assigned in 2019 to work on a client’s partnership with TV personality Paula Deen, who had been accused of racial discrimination and said in 2013 that she’d used the N-word. This person said they were uncomfortable with the assignment but that their managers, group creative directors Gregg Steward and Chuck DeLong, downplayed their reaction. The former employee said they complained to HR and eventually were reassigned.

DeLong was laid off from the agency in 2020.

DeLong told Insider that the employee on the Paula Deen project was immediately reassigned once they expressed concerns to him, denying the person had to go through HR.

The same former employee also said they were called out by HR in early 2020 for wearing a Black Lives Matter sweatshirt to the office on the grounds that it violated the agency’s dress code.

“Black Lives Matter is not a political statement,” the former staffer said. “Some women come in wearing yoga pants. People wear death-metal band T-shirts. The creative department in general allows employees to express themselves through their clothing.”

Some also reported experiencing sexism

The second former employee and two current employees said they heard DeLong comment in the office in 2018 that women are unreliable workers when they have their periods.

DeLong denied the claim, saying he would “never” say that. He agreed with the perception that agency leaders micromanaged staff, though.

A fourth former employee who worked with DeLong for more than three decades said they never experienced him being “abusive or misogynist.” The employee said all managers at Zimmerman micromanage, though, saying, “The way Zimmerman works, they are a sweatshop. It’s not a great place to work.”

This person, who left Zimmerman in the past year, requested anonymity out of concern about job prospects.

Two people said women are told not to wear open-toed shoes.

“There is pressure for women in the office to be dressed up a little bit more, to wear makeup, and make sure your hair is put together,” the first current employee said. “Then I see male creative directors with bedhead, in flip-flops and jeans.”

This person also said that once they overheard two male colleagues openly discussing a female employee’s appearance.

“They were talking very openly about a female employee, about how hot she is,” the person said. “I walked in, and they weren’t shy at all. They kept on having a full-on conversation at full volume.”

In 2017, a former employee named Alison Kessler sued the agency, alleging that while working there in 2016, after she revealed her pregnancy, her supervisor told her he was concerned with her ability to travel for work and that, four days later, she was fired after three months with the agency. The lawsuit was eventually settled.

For many companies, reopening has presented an opportunity to redefine when and where employees work.

But some Zimmerman employees for whom remote work has been a respite from the office culture are anxious about returning as management has said it wouldn’t allow flexible working situations. Some said they’re too scared to complain, for fear of repercussions. And the message they got from Zimmerman’s comments on the layoffs call was that they’re easily replaceable.

“As an employee, you know the agency’s culture sucks, but not being exposed to it as directly helps,” the first current employee said. “Being stuck in the office with nowhere to go really affects me.”

For one, the experience was bad enough to cause them to leave the industry altogether. “I’ll work with brands — I’m doing some branding projects on my own and with people I trust — but no advertising agencies,” the second former employee said.

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