Perhaps everyone should have understood what would happen to this unlikely team of Sean, Julie, Howard, and Wal-Mart. But at the start everyone was full of hope.
At Le Bernardin last month, the waiter offered us Champagne, a favorite drink of Julie’s. “Almonds,” she said, after a sip of Veuve Clicquot. Sean and Julie hadn’t yet talked extensively about their experience, not together, but in this lovely restaurant, they seemed eager to review the early-warning signs, the ones they’d missed. Julie is tall and, in tight jeans, leggy; Sean looks straight out of a J.Crew catalogue: navy blazer, wrinkled white shirt, plus a handsome angular face and wedge of thick dark hair. He’s 37, though he looks younger, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s older than I am,” Julie, 36, pointed out with delight.
Sean is actually from Arkansas. “People are always surprised that I’m from there,” he said.
“Because you’re so not … from there,” Julie said.
Julie and Sean get along effortlessly, “two crazy kids,” as Sean later put it, sharing ideas of what marketing could be. “A science,” said Julie, who studied engineering at Purdue and then business at the University of Chicago.
Sean, before Saatchi, had tried to be a Hollywood producer—he was involved with Napoleon Dynamite at an early stage. At Saatchi, he helped redesign a depressing Wal-Mart in Plano, Texas—his version was cool, quiet, and sold sushi. It also boosted sales. As Julie put it, “You’d say, ‘Where am I?’ ”
Possibly, Julie and Sean, with their affinity for sushi and Champagne, should have realized that they weren’t a perfect fit for Wal-Mart. At Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, dead since 1992, is still the presiding presence. The year Walton was named the richest man in America, he wore clothes from Wal-Mart and drove an old pickup. He didn’t appreciate a showy style and was sure his customers didn’t either. On the road, people were supposed to share hotel rooms, though they didn’t mix the sexes. Meals were capped at $35 a day for New York City—$25 elsewhere.
His company was also relentlessly democratic. The folklore held that if the head of a Hollywood studio flew in to hawk DVDs, he’d still get his 30 minutes—that’s the time limit—with the designated associate, as employees are called, probably a young, well-scrubbed fellow in short white sleeves. And this fellow would beat him up on prices just as he did every vendor. (“Don’t ever feel sorry for a vendor” is one Wal-Mart pearl.) He’d do that in one of about 40 compact gray meeting rooms on the wall of which was a stern warning: ASSOCIATES … DO NOT ACCEPT FOR THEIR PERSONAL BENEFIT GRATUITIES, TIPS, CASH, SAMPLES, ETC. You couldn’t accept a cup of coffee.
Another element of the Walton creed was that Wal-Mart is about the company; individuals are secondary. It’s company as family, and every Saturday morning at 7:30, Walton (a famous early riser) insisted that everyone at headquarters meet together. It was a business review, though Walton also liked to lead a cheer: “Give me a W … Give me an A … ” For the punctuation in the middle of the name, the call was “Give me a squiggly,” at which point hundreds of employees shook their booties.
Julie and Sean didn’t exactly take to the Bentonville style. To them, and to the Madison Avenue types as well, the culture Walton created felt like a straitjacket. At Saatchi, Sean had a balcony overlooking a lake. Wal-Mart’s office walls were windowless and battleship gray—only top executives had windows—and so were the desks. Julie’s conference table was a foldout card table.
Julie couldn’t bear it. “I bought my paint at Wal-Mart, my ladder, my equipment, and I went in at six o’clock one night and painted my walls chartreuse and the trim brown,” she says. “It looked like a Key-lime pie. At least it was bright.”
Sean identified. “I felt different than people there,” he says.
They found the place a little creepy, cultlike. Sean still remembers when he was going to buy a Ralph Lauren T-shirt. Shouldn’t you buy Wal-Mart clothing? he was asked. Sean started noticing, “Wow, a lot of people at the home office actually do buy their clothes at Wal-Mart. That’s odd.”
People were so satisfied with themselves, just not curious. It was like, Who needs the rest of the world?
Of course, it’s a question worth asking. You might argue that the country needs Wal-Mart rather than the other way around. After all, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the country. It opens a staggering 350 stores a year in the U.S. alone, the equivalent of a national chain every year. No wonder that for years, the aw-shucks company was self-assured, secretive, and immune to just about everything. Who needed a new ad campaign? For the last ten or so years, Wal-Mart had been perfectly content relying on a yellow smiley face—sometimes dressed up as Robin Hood!—to announce low prices. It was the only marketing idea Wal-Mart seemed to have. But then, as Sean and Julie were told, at Wal-Mart, marketing was referred to as the graveyard where merchants stopped off before retiring.