Detroit Agency Sues Former Chief Creative Officer for Allegedly Conspiring to Steal ‘Trade Secret Information’

The Mars Agency claims Suzanna Bierwirth and her husband took data before she joined a rival shop

The Mars Agency is suing its former CCO Suzanna Bierwirth for allegedly stealing certain 'trade secret' files before she joined rival agency Upshot. - Credit by The Mars Agency

Detroit-based shopper marketing company The Mars Agency is suing its former U.S. chief creative officer Suzanna Bierwirth.

The lawsuit accuses Bierwirth, who was appointed to the position last year, and her partner Brad Simpson of stealing “hundreds of files containing massive amounts of proprietary and trade-secret information” after the agency gave her a termination notice in August.

The suit was filed in the Michigan Eastern District Court in September and did not explain why Bierwirth and The Mars Agency parted ways. Neither Mars nor its lawyers responded to requests for comment. And the couple did not respond to multiple attempts to contact them by email, social media accounts and phone.

The lawsuit alleges that Bierwirth asked for permission to take her company laptop home to retrieve personal photos and documents on it just days before her scheduled Aug. 10 departure from The Mars Agency. The agency claims that Bierwirth and Simpson then uploaded and transferred information from that laptop to their personal computers, Dropbox accounts and a backup hard drive, including “pricing and cost data, financial records, business plans, strategy documents, pitch information, salary information, marketing plans, historical information, organizational charts, strategic assessments” and the agency’s “latest go-to-market ideas.”

Bierwirth and Simpson allegedly tried unsuccessfully to wipe the company laptop clean before returning it, the court filing states. If true, The Mars Agency says it would be “the largest electronic file theft in its 46-year history.”

“Defendants acknowledged at least some of this transfer only after being caught,” the suit states. “Bierwirth claimed falsely she merely made a mistake, and Simpson claimed through an attorney his wrongdoing should be ignored because he ‘owed no duty’ to Mars.”

A non-compete dispute

Bierwirth joined The Mars Agency in April 2017, replacing 35-year agency veteran Jeff Stocker, who was promoted to global chief creative officer. She previously spent close to 17 years with FCB, most recently serving as senior vp, group creative director for the IPG network’s Chicago office.

In September, rival Chicago agency Upshot, which also pitches for shopper marketing accounts, hired Bierwirth to serve as executive vp, executive creative director. According to the suit, this move occurred in violation of her employee contract with The Mars Agency, in which she agreed to “not directly or indirectly provide shopper marketing services for any business that is competitive with Mars” for one year after exiting, as well as to not poach any of the agency’s clients during that time.

The suit further alleges that Bierwirth began talks with Upshot in June “while planning her departure with Mars.” It is unclear if The Mars Agency knew about these talks prior to letting her go. The agency claims in the filing that she “began encouraging, inducing or otherwise soliciting numerous Mars employees to leave” while negotiating details of her employment with Upshot.

Simpson and Bierwirth have not filed a response to the lawsuit, and it’s unclear whether they have hired legal representation since its filing.

Upshot has not responded to an email and voicemail left with the company’s HR department.

The Mars Agency is seeking an injunctive relief for the immediate return of all devices that could contain stolen files, a full analysis of any compromised information, and exemplary and punitive damages for the incurred losses stemming from the incident, legal fees and costs related to the investigation. The suit claims Simpson, a creative who has worked at JWT, FCB and other agencies in the Chicago area, has declined to release his personal devices.

The Mars Agency’s current client list includes such brands as Samsung, Campbell’s, Pepperidge Farm, Lowe’s, Hallmark, Conagra and Pfizer. Beyond its Detroit headquarters, it operates 11 offices across North America and Europe. American Pet Nutrition appointed The Mars Agency as its shopper marketing agency of record at the beginning of 2018, following Tillamook County Creamery Association in October 2017.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
@kitten_mouse Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.
Publish date: December 11, 2018 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT