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Snakes in the Garden

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The DraftFCB ad that caused the trouble; below, Roehm's risqué Durango spot.  

Sean and Julie agreed that Wal-Mart needed something new, something more than, as Sean said, “a frozen smiley dressed up in goofy costume flitting about the store knocking over prices.”

Besides, Wal-Mart’s vigor has slackened. Target’s per-store sales have grown at twice the rate of Wal-Mart’s in the past two years. Wal-Mart’s stock has long hovered in the same range, while Target’s has doubled in the past four. Wal-Mart is brutally efficient; it squeezes the waste out of everything. But Target has Isaac Mizrahi clothes and Philippe Starck trashbins—on which, by the way, the margins are terrific. At Wal-Mart, you save two cents here, nineteen cents there. At Target, shopping is an experience. Soccer moms—people who buy for taste as well as price—bound in.

To Sean and Julie and to new chief marketing officer John Fleming, a former Target executive, all this foretold exciting times. Julie had a solid, if flamboyant, reputation in Detroit. Her work had raised sales and, in the process, got her inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Achievement for young executives. Now Fleming told Julie, “Give me two or three years, we’re going to totally change the way the world’s largest company does marketing.” Fleming, by the way, let them know he didn’t really care for the smiley face.

Under Julie’s direction, Wal-Mart tested new approaches. One TV spot was called “Sexy.” Later, everyone made a big fuss over the ad, as if it were terrifically outré. To Julie, it was hardly sexy. And, anyhow, they never got to see if it worked.

Over lunch, Sean and Julie told the story. The ad begins with a wife sitting on her husband’s lap one Christmas morning.

“She opens her present and this … ” said Sean.

“Red,” said Julie.

“Like grandmotherish sort of nightgown … ” said Sean.

“She’s not like a lingerie model.”

“Not remotely hot.”

“She rubs it against her cheek.”

“And so about the time where this is really … ”

“… Starting to get uncomfortable …”

“Like, ‘Oh, please’; you get a reverse shot of the living room with the whole family sitting there.”

“Grandma, grandpa, kids.”

“One of their teenage sons says, ‘Will you guys please stop?’ Which is the laugh line.”

The ad, said Julie, aired during Desperate Housewives. Fleming read Julie the follow-up e-mail from CEO Lee Scott. Apparently, two women called Wal-Mart to complain. The ad was pulled (as was, by the way, the Durango ad). “Two people watching Desperate Housewives!” says Julie. “Could the irony be worse?”

Howard Draft does his business in one of four tawny-yellow chairs circling a coffee table. “My trademark,” says Howard. His office décor was one of the things that struck Julie as she and Sean ran the search for a new ad firm. “He doesn’t have a desk!” she told me. “How do you not like a guy like that?”

On one wall, Howard has a flat-screen TV, always on, the volume off. Howard has kept quiet in the press; he felt muzzled. Lately, his career has been summed up by the Wal-Mart experience. To Howard, that’s not fair.

In his office,Howard jogs to the office shelves, sweeps up an armful of photos, piles them on the low coffee table for me to examine. Most feature his wife, as he calls her, though she’s his ex-wife.

“Are you still in love with her?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah,” he says.

There was also a photo of his ex-girlfriend, an Italian. Howard can’t resist. He lets me know that she’s “a global model.” And yet it’s another sad note. Howard and the global model split up this summer after four years. “It broke his heart,” says a friend. “We spoke six times a day, sometimes at three in morning. All his insecurities surfaced. He wears them on his sleeve.”

Howard, I know, is now squiring around another model, this one French. “How do you get the beautiful girls?” I ask.

“It’s not because I’m cute. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m winning them over with my charm,” says Howard. “It’s probably because I’ve been successful.” Howard’s the dumpy guy who, as one friend puts it, gets the prom queen. Ostentatious, showy success is his calling card and also his revenge, personally and, as it turns out, professionally. (It’s no coincidence that every year, he watches The Godfather, a how-to guide to retribution.)

Howard directed me to a speech he gave a few years ago at Cannes, where the industry’s most prestigious awards are bestowed on the most creative ads. After two decades in the business, Howard was finally invited to speak—it was Howard’s coming out—and he didn’t waste any time repaying the favor. “I have a fight to pick,” Howard told his audience of creatives.


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