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Snakes in the Garden

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Julie Roehm, Wal-Mart's femme fatale.  

In the beginning, there was Sam Walton, and he invented Wal-Mart and saw that it was good, and he drove a pickup and wore clothes from his own store, even as he built more across the globe and became the richest man in America. And Sam ruthlessly bullied manufacturers and undersold his competition, crushing mom-and-pop stores across the land. He also decreed that his employees would live as simply as he did, sharing hotel rooms and keeping their expenses to a bare minimum, topping out at $35 a day for food, which is barely enough to buy a decent hamburger in New York. For a long time, things continued this way, even after Sam died. But then other stores like Target began to lure consumers with fancy products and splashy ads, and the elders of Bentonville decided they needed a sexier image. So into the garden they brought two young marketers named Julie Roehm and Sean Womack and a gruff, aggressive adman named Howard Draft. Of course, they got booted out of Eden. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Most people think of Paris or Venice as the kind of city where dreams come true. But Bentonville, Arkansas? It’s a much less common fantasy.

That is, unless you happen to be a marketer. Bentonville is the home of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer and second largest company in the world; just about every American (except, of course, for New Yorkers) lives within a half-hour of a Wal-Mart. For a decade or more, its advertising approach had barely budged. And so, to the advertising world, Bentonville seemed like an undiscovered continent, the kind where bold people might make their mark (and a fortune), might, perhaps, create a brand-new world.

For 30 years, Wal-Mart’s advertising needs were handled by the same two firms, one southern and one midwestern, arrangements that folksy Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton had sealed with a handshake. Who needed fancy ads when Wal-Mart bulldozed the competition with rock-bottom prices? Except that growth on a per-store basis had slowed by half over the past five years. And so Wal-Mart had lately begun to experience something strange: dissatisfaction. The wise men of Bentonville wondered if a little change wouldn’t do them good.

In January 2006, shortly before dumping its old ad relationships, Wal-Mart hired a vivacious young blonde named Julie Roehm. The company made her a senior vice-president and told her to rethink its image, the assignment of a lifetime. Previously, Julie had been in Detroit, first at Ford, then at DaimlerChrysler, where she had made a big reputation in a field almost as predictable as retail. Julie’s weapon of choice—at least the one she became known for—was something not much discussed around the watercooler in Bentonville: sex. There was, for instance, her memorable TV spot for the Dodge Durango SUV, which featured two guys side-by-side at urinals: “It’s seven inches longer,” says one. “My girlfriend loves it.” Of course, they’re talking about the Durango, which is seven inches longer and, if you look close, pictured in a poster on the bathroom wall.

People in Bentonville also found plenty of sex in Julie’s personal presentation—the hair, the legs, the big blue eyes—though, for all the talk about what later went wrong, she seemed wholesome by New York standards, Rachael Ray as a midwestern business executive. Maybe, so the thinking went, she just might be bold enough to teach Wal-Mart the facts of life in the 21st century.

At Wal-Mart, Julie was teamed with Sean Womack, a similarly fresh-faced vice-president hired the same month from ad giant Saatchi & Saatchi’s Arkansas outpost. Their chief assignment was to search for a new ad agency. They spent seven months on the road together, becoming something like office spouses. Which was how the whispering started back in Bentonville. Were they more than colleagues? In October, Sean and Julie introduced the solid citizens of Bentonville to the cheerful id of Madison Avenue in the person of Howard Draft. Howard, 53, had climbed from the bottom of the ad business, out of a pile of junk mail, which is what he built his first empire on. By the time Julie discovered him, he had, by force of will, taken over one of advertising’s venerable old-line agencies and upgraded his lifestyle to fit his new station. He drove an Aston Martin, built himself an architectural showplace in Aspen, Colorado, and bought up a bit of modern art. Oh, and he dated models (traits that would later become issues with Wal-Mart). With all the success, Howard still had a dream. Howard sometimes saw himself as the future king of advertising. Bentonville, with its $580 million advertising budget, was where he was going to earn the crown.


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