Insiders at Omnicom agency GMMB say the workplace is rife with 'systemic' racism, where people of color are tokenized and treated like 'the help'
GMMB's founding partner Jim Margolis at a press conference in 2006.Getty Images / Roll Call / Chris Maddaloni
The agency supports progressive causes and figures, but current and former employees say it doesn't live up to its stat...

Insiders at Omnicom agency GMMB say the workplace is rife with 'systemic' racism, where people of color are tokenized and treated like 'the help'

The agency supports progressive causes and figures, but current and former employees say it doesn't live up to its stat...
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  • Current and former GMMB employees who spoke with Business Insider say the advertising agency that's a favorite of progressive and Democratic causes has a "systemic racism" problem.
  • While the firm touts its progressive work, these employees say the agency relegated employees of color to administrative work like office chores, failed to promote them equally, and tokenized them to win new business.
  • GMMB said it's committed to doing better and announced steps to address employee concerns.
A former employee at the public-relations and advertising agency GMMB said she was drawn to the firm a few years ago based on its reputation for work on education programs like the Common Core State Standards and other progressive causes.

While working as an assistant to a partner, Kaia Lenhart, she was often called on to run personal errands, she said. But she felt these asks went too far when Lenhart, who is white and has adopted children who are Black, asked the Black staffer for tips on how to style her children's hair and to call local shopping malls to find a Black Santa.

"I was angry about it," said the former employee, whose identity is known to Business Insider but who requested anonymity to speak without fear of repercussions. "It also felt sort of disrespectful. If you want to know if there's a Black Santa, why don't you ask yourself? Why do you think because I'm Black that that's OK to do?"

Lenhart, whose clients include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The World Bank, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, hasn't responded to a request for comment.

GMMB's reputation as a progressive haven has attracted Black, Indigenous, and other employees of color who were inspired by its work.

Founded in 1983, GMMB has supported figures like Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and, now, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Two of its founding partners — Frank Greer and Jim Margolis — worked on presidential campaigns for Obama and Bill Clinton. The agency is owned by FleishmanHillard, an Omnicom Group agency. It has about 200 to 250 employees across three offices in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

But the reality of working there left many of these employees disillusioned.

Insiders at Omnicom agency GMMB say the workplace is rife with 'systemic' racism, where people of color are tokenized and treated like 'the help'
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden poses for a picture with Pastor of the Bethel AME Church, Rev. Dr. Silvester S. Beaman and attendees during a visit to the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S. June 1, 2020.REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Business Insider spoke with 26 current and former employees, 15 of whom identify as people of color. Their roles ranged from junior-level positions like assistant account executive to more senior ones like senior digital strategist. The vast majority of them described a culture of "systemic racism" and racial bias that clashes with the brand GMMB built over more than three decades.

They accuse the agency of having pushed out employees of color, tried to silence people who raised concerns, relegated employees of color to office chores, failed to promote them equally, and tokenized them to win new business.

One former employee said that they suffered from stomach pains and headaches they believe were results from the stress of their job and said they were prescribed Lexapro for anxiety and depression. Many said they didn't realize how bad conditions were until they went to other public-relation firms. "It was the worst job I ever had," one said.

On June 11, more than 130 GMMB employees signed a letter to the agency's partners, proposing 34 reforms to hiring, staffing, client work, procurement, administrative work, and thought-leadership practices.

"I think GMMB has good intentions," a former employee said. "It's a tone-deaf organization when it comes to these internal issues around diversity. They suffer from systemic racial bias."

GMMB issued the following statement to Business Insider:

"At GMMB, we recognize that our 38-year commitment to advance equity and opportunity in the world must be anchored in our own firm. We are committed to learning from the past and we take seriously and to heart complaints brought to us. We own them, and though we are not able to comment publicly on individual issues, we have begun an investigation process. Once complete, we will take appropriate action.

"However, reckoning with the past is only a small part of implementing the necessary strategies and programs to becoming an industry leader in diversity, equity and inclusion. It's the beginning of a comprehensive journey that we are taking wholeheartedly with our current staff, new GMMB team members to come, and outside experts and partners who are helping guide us on our path."

Sources said most employees of color had low-status jobs

Most of the firm's people of color are low-level assistants who are paid around $45,000 a year, though some said they made less than that. Their duties include cleaning up and doing personal tasks for senior staff like ordering plane tickets, dog walking, watering houseplants, and scheduling doctor's appointments.

While such personal tasks are common for employees at that level, sources said they felt employees of color got less respect and fewer promotions than white employees. One white former staffer compared it to the 1960s-era "Mad Men."

Former employees said it was common to hear partners complain about millennials wanting to get promoted before they were ready. But they felt the greatest scrutiny fell on nonwhite employees.

Former employees said they challenged GMMB to hire more employees of color but were told they didn't have the skills needed.

One supervisor asked a Black employee to be more "polite" and "approachable," according to a performance review seen by Business Insider. One former employee, who identifies as a person of color, said many of her Black colleagues were questioned about their level of "professionalism."

A routine part of junior-level PR work is to read and summarize news coverage of clients. One Black former employee said her supervisor sat down and read a story along with her. The employee felt as if her supervisor was testing her reading comprehension.

"I was like, this is how low you think of me?" she recalled. "You don't think I can find takeaways and what's high-level? It was insulting, as a college graduate."

Another former assistant of color said their supervisor commented about their gaining weight. They said they complained to HR, but the comments continued. At one point, their supervisor criticized them for ordering plane tickets that were too expensive, prompting them to cry.

In 2016, after an assistant who was a person of color accepted a prestigious job offer, Jennifer Kohl, then a vice president who helped lead the media-relations team, expressed shock at a routine meeting that the employee was so successful, according to two former employees who were there.

"Again and again, she brought it up until the room became very uncomfortable," the former employee said. "Meanwhile, several months later, her white female protege got a new job and [Kohl] couldn't be more thrilled for her. I think she even threw her a party."

One called the incident "horrifying," and several employees who attended the meeting said they complained to HR.

Kohl told Business Insider she never knew of the complaints.

"I honestly feel terrible to hear that I upset people, and if I'd known at the time, I would have addressed it directly and apologized, both individually and to the team as a whole," she said.

People of color struggled to move up

Insiders at Omnicom agency GMMB say the workplace is rife with 'systemic' racism, where people of color are tokenized and treated like 'the help'
Democratic Presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) huddles with his senior campaign staff, including media adviser Jim Margolis and others in 2008 in Des Moines, Iowa.Charles Ommanney / Getty Images

Some said there were some higher-ups, like the partner Jaime Zapata, who mentored people of color.

But overall, they said it was hard for people of color to get promoted because a lot of the low-level tasks assigned to them weren't billable, and many said they had to leave the agency to grow their careers.

"You look like 'the help,'" another Black former employee said. "How dare you have people doing that kind of work and saying you're not strategic enough? Where was the opportunity to be strategic?"

One Black former employee said when they asked for a promotion, they were told they hadn't done enough account work.

"I was furious because I did the work that was assigned and didn't have any agency over the kind of work being done," the employee said.

Some former GMMB staffers say the firm tokenized employees of color to win business

Another major concern raised by most of the former employees who spoke with Business Insider was that the firm regularly used employees of color to market the firm and win new clients.

They said GMMB added employees of color to pitches for big accounts like The James Irvine Foundation, the Gates Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though those employees were responsible only for administrative tasks.

Liz Jewell, who was a senior digital strategist and developer from 2017 to 2018, recalled GMMB moving up the start date of a Latinx staffer so the agency could include the person in a new business pitch.

Another former staffer said when they brought up this practice to their boss, the response was: "This is a reality of GMMB, and this is what we have to do."

"At the time, I almost saw it as a good thing," a white former staffer said of this practice. "We want to reflect our diversity and values. That's how senior staff present it. I bought into that until I had this conversation with a Black employee about what it feels like to have their face on random proposals they didn't have a hand in."

In 2016, to obscure the lack of diversity at the company, GMMB partners decided to use only black-and-white headshots and add mid-level employees to its website's leadership page, said a source with direct knowledge of the process.

GMMB told Business Insider it "never put people of color on accounts they did not work on in order to retain business."

"However, when putting together literally hundreds of proposals, staffers of all races and backgrounds — including gender and LGBTQ — are sometimes added to proposals so the client knows our capabilities if we get the work or at their request," the agency said in a statement. "Going forward we will make sure all employees are consulted prior to adding their resume to a proposal."

Several GMMB employees said their complaints to HR were dismissed

More than a dozen former staffers said HR regularly dismissed their complaints, whether about racial discrimination or other matters.

In 2018, digital team members complained to HR about their directors. Both Black and white people had complained, but the firm labeled only the Black staffers as "troublemakers," with one being put on a performance-improvement plan, Jewell said.

GMMB said in a statement that the agency received two complaints alleging racial discrimination and/or diversity and inclusion in 2019 and that these were "acted upon." Sources, however, said they also raised concerns to supervisors in informal one-on-ones, emails, and office town halls.

Former GMMB employees say they've been disappointed by past diversity-and-inclusion efforts

Insiders at Omnicom agency GMMB say the workplace is rife with 'systemic' racism, where people of color are tokenized and treated like 'the help'
Demonstrators walk towards the White House and away from the U.S. Capitol Building during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Washington, U.S., June 6, 2020. Picture taken June 6, 2020.REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Over the years, GMMB has taken steps to improve the workplace for nonwhite workers. But even these have felt hollow to some.

In 2018, its diversity, equity, and inclusion committee held a discussion about Colin Kaepernick's taking a knee during the national anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality.

In the Seattle office, employees of color sat listening to "white leadership have their feelings on it, and nobody even recognized they hadn't heard from people of color," a former employee said.

That same year, GMMB hired an outside consultant, Innovation International's Jeffon Seely, who asked GMMB staff to write down incidents of ageism and racial discrimination they witnessed. GMMB said it had since held staff workshops on unconscious bias and developed a "cultural-inclusion survey" to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Nimra Haroon, a former media-relations specialist at GMMB, called the agency's D&I efforts "performative" and said white employees showed little interest in participating in the committee's meetings.

"Anti-racism isn't a hobby or initiative," Haroon said. "The fact we think we need to segment it into a DE&I committee is the problem."

A racial-justice campaign stirred controversy

Companies have faced growing scrutiny about their records on race since the killing of George Floyd following an arrest in Minneapolis in late May.

At GMMB, the long-simmering concerns came to a head in June when the firm launched a campaign, #TogetherAgainstRacism, to raise money for racial-justice organizations. Former employees like Jewell publicly criticized the company online.

"I am speaking up because I do care about the company and its employees, and I want better for you all," Jewell wrote in a LinkedIn post. "You have worked for three decades as champions of progressive policies around the world — it is reasonable to expect you to meet this same high standard internally."

GMMB has announced steps to address employee concerns

After staff members sent their letter June 11, GMMB named its first Black partner, Micheline Kennedy, and announced other steps including increasing hiring and retention of people of color.

"While we are far from being perfect, we have worked hard to create an environment where everyone feels valued and included and we acknowledge at times we have fallen short and we are committed to doing better," GMMB partner Susan Feeney told Business Insider.

HR director Chandra Krohl left GMMB on June 21, two days after being named in an Ad Age article in which sources accused "leadership and human resources of fostering and covering up a culture of racism." A GMMB representative told Ad Age the agency took their comments "very seriously."

A VP resigned over the firm's management and treatment of racial issues

To some, the firm's work is far from done.

GMMB has recently held virtual company town halls to address diversity and inclusion. At one, on June 17, the founding partner Greer said the firm didn't have a problem with systemic racism.

A vice president, Brandon Lee, resigned in response, saying he disapproved of the firm's management, accountability, and handling of racial issues, a source familiar with the matter said.

The next day, Feeney emailed the staff: "Frank and I are deeply saddened that Brandon resigned. And we apologize to those who felt our words fell short yesterday. We respect and value each of you, and sincerely want to reiterate our commitment to listen to you, reflect and carry out specific, structural changes to make GMMB the place we want it to be. We will do better and be better."

Yet one former employee said systemic racism was still embedded in GMMB's leadership and decision-making process.

"It's the partners and leadership who must still be held accountable, must apologize, and stop gaslighting employees who have come forward about racism," the person said, "and must admit they have a systemic-racism problem."