Wednesday, November 7

Risking Credibility: Biegel vs. Dentsu


Brands are fragile things, like snowmen in spring. That’s what Julie Roehm learned with Wal-Mart, a case study we concluded back in August. And now it seems Steve Biegel, former creative director for Dentsu America, is about to learn the same thing.

Effie, Clio, and David Ogilvy Award-winning ad veteran Biegel filed a lawsuit against his former employer that has the advertising industry shaking its head, not its fist.

He alleges that Toyo Shigeta, CEO of Dentsu Holdings USA, took and shared upskirt shots of women (including Maria Sharapova; see Adrants), forced him to visit a Prague brothel, and required workers to have sex with prostitutes. Advertising Age has published the entire lawsuit online. It makes the Roehm scandal look rated G for gratuitous.

“If Steve Biegel had exhibited as much creativity and effort when he worked here as he has on manufacturing this frivolous complaint, the company would not have fired him,” Dentsu America CEO Tim Andree told Adweek.

Dentsu has also vowed to file a countersuit, primarily alleging libel because a lawsuit draft was sent to its clients. (If Biegel did send Dentsu clients drafts, he may be forced to prove every point true to avoid libel.)

As with most legal wrangling, some of the non-court communication hints at the truth. Did the events take place? Probably. Was Biegel horrified and sexually harassed? Only Biegel really knows, but his credibility is in question because based on the lawsuit and subsequent communication.

It seems all too likely that he was more horrified about losing his job than some of the events that seemed to have occurred as much as three years prior. It also doesn’t help that Biegel did not find the alibi or ally he thought he might with his friend Scott Weitz, a staffer with Driver Media who was present during the Prague brothel incident. According Adweek, Weitz said that Biegel never complained about Shigeta encouraging or forcing him to engage in such behavior and that Biegel went into a private room with a prostitute. (Eesh! To think that if Hostel came out one year earlier, all this may have been avoided.)

To be clear, sexual harassment in the workplace is wrong. However, advertising is probably not the right career path for those who shy away from an industry that claims “sex sells.” At least, it’s not really suited for someone who claims to be as horrified as Biegel now says he is (not that our industry requires bath houses or brothels, of course).

Still, what employees need to know, I suppose, is that just because your employer tells you to do something, it doesn’t mean you have to do it. Um, you can make your feelings known immediately, file a complaint while you’re still employed, or walk out the front door before you’re fired. Heck, I’ve even terminated an account or two after becoming uncomfortable with advances that persisted after warnings.

Just say NO!

But, then again, I’m not writing from a legal perspective (because I’m not an attorney). I’m writing from a communication perspective that suggests: it’s probably best not to be the freewheeling creative ad guy for years and then attempt to play bashful family man shortly after you are terminated.

The less than $1 million lawsuit and potential damage from a libel countersuit (not to mention potential personal brand and credibility erosion), is not worth it. Or, in other words, if Biegel really wanted to win this case as opposed to shooting for a settlement, he would have employed the most basic premise of crisis communication and “talked about it as soon as possible.” That would have been three years ago.

Still, this lawsuit comes at a bad time for Denstu. It just recently made a push toward taking a more visible foothold in the international marketplace. Although it is one of the largest advertising companies in the world, only eight percent of its revenue is generated outside Japan. (Japan is the second largest advertising market in the world.) Its clients have included Canon, Toyota, HarperCollins Publications, and Toshiba America, among others.

As a side note, Dentsu America’s mission statement is to “influence by telling the truth in new ways.” And how. Case study? I'm not sure yet.

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8 comments:

Lewis Green on 11/7/07, 10:50 AM said...

Rich,

I understand the pain of saying no to a boss, as it might cost one his or her job. But if we stoop to bad behavior to save our jobs, then are we any better than the boss who asks us to comply? I think not.

Rich on 11/7/07, 11:15 AM said...

You're right Lewis.

The whole thing reminds me of Stanley Milgram's Theory of Obedience. I would think by now that we could move away from the model of blind obedience and toward independent thought.

Best,
Rich

Anonymous said...

This is the classical example of blaming the accuser. Fact: Japanese business men go on these excursions regularly. Fact: This guy says he reported it to his boss. Fact: He has witnesses. Let's see what Weitz says in court. And the employees who were coerced into the bath. Let's see what they say in court. How many American companies are going to hire this Japanese company now? They are the ones who's credibility is questioned. And will always be questioned, even if they put their multi-million dollar legal machine to work and defeat him with pr spin. What specific claim did they deny anyway?

Let's face it. The claims are not that unreasonable based on typical Japanese business practices, are they?

Rich on 11/7/07, 4:39 PM said...

Hey Anon,

I think you're reading an awful lot into my post if you think I've condemned Biegel.

What I was addressing was how Biegel could have better served himself — how he might have communicated his horror by taking action more than a year ago when he was terminated, or better yet, three years prior after he was done with the Canon shoot ... right before he quit. He did not, which does nothing to help his case.

So consider the headline, which notes that both Biegel and Dentsu have their credibility on the line. At the moment, based on communication, it seems Biegel has been least effective.

Also, I take exception to your conclusion "The claims are not that unreasonable based on typical Japanese business practices, are they?"

While I have not had meetings in Japan, I have worked with several Japanese companies, and to answer your question ... no, that has not been my experience at all.

I do know, however, if I was invited to a Japanese bathhouse, I would decline if I felt uncomfortable with removing my clothes, just as I might decline working out prior to a meeting if I had to shower at the gym (there is nothing sexual about either and I am not so disposed). Not mention, if I worked for a Japanese company, I might learn more about the culture I am working with.

That said, if anyone has chosen sides, it seems to me that you might have. Thanks for providing a different perspective, but I prefer to let people know that they do not have to do "anything" their supervisors say and they have the right to quit (and file suit as may be warranted). Thus, Biegel would have better served himself quitting a long time ago.

All my best,
Rich

Jen said...

By the way, there is nothing sexual about a Japanese bathhouse. People are naked, but that is NORMAL there. You have to sit down and scrub yourself with soap before getting into the bath. Male and female are separate. It's basically a place to relax and talk with people, maybe have a drink.

Rich on 11/9/07, 11:09 PM said...

Thanks Jen,

I think that is a very important distinction.

All my best,
Rich

HighJive on 1/25/08, 9:33 PM said...

It sure is interesting to see the Biegel supporter use discriminatory anti-Japanese remarks to argue the creative director was violated by sexual and anti-Semitic discrimination. Oh, how those primitive Japanese businessmen engage in perverted acts. Heaven forbid Madison Avenue honchos have ever solicited prostitutes. Why, Mad Ave executives would never even routinely visit Times Square’s “gentlemen’s clubs” with clients. Yeah, right. Biegel’s anonymous supporter needs to wake up.

Rich on 1/25/08, 10:29 PM said...

Hey HighJive,

Good point. Much of the industry is a bit closer to Hollywood than Main Street.

I'm not sure if you caught the update, but it seems the motion to dismiss was denied. I don't expect this one to see a speedy end.

Best,
Rich

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