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Snakes in the Garden

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Howard had made his mark with time-sensitive-confidential-open-immediately envelopes and, later, those call-now TV ads, some with 800 numbers. He might be the royalty of his field, but the field was direct marketing—“dreck marketing,” as the creatives so cleverly put it—perhaps advertising’s lowest caste.

At Cannes, Howard roared back, “You mock our mailings.” Worse, they condescended to him personally. He’d once sat around a conference table at Time Inc.—he’d just landed the HBO account, one of his big breaks—as the blue bloods rattled off their alma maters: Harvard, Yale, Princeton.

“And yours, Howard?”

“You want to know where I went to college?”

“Yes.”

“Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin.”

The table stared. Pass the port, not our sort. (Howard didn’t get to mention that he was a trustee at 38.)

At Cannes, Howard had a put-down of his own. “You would gladly sell your souls (and your mothers) for the big idea,” Howard said.

Creatives told a client, “Give me ten years and I’ll build you a brand.” Howard had ten minutes to induce a person to do something. No one really knows if award-winning ads increase sales. Howard, though, knew with certainty if his ads worked. With TV or radio, the results came in overnight.

The CEO’s wife might adore the high-concept ads. CEOs, as Howard told his audience, want numbers.

Howard wasn’t merely mouthing off. In one of the ironies of the ad game, dreck marketing of the kind Howard had long practiced had moved to the center of the business, taking an ever-larger cut of ad budgets. Some of that had to do with the Internet, perhaps the ultimate tool for targeted appeals, cost efficiencies, measurable results. “Some may think we are second-class citizens,” Howard once said, “but in my world money talks. When the money is moving from them to us, I would rather be where the money is.”

Howard worked like a demon. Many Saturdays, he was in his office. “When you went to Ripon College and you’re working against guys who went to fancy schools,” he says, “you have to work harder than everyone else.” In 1995, Howard bought his company from its then-owner, the debt-laden Saatchi & Saatchi. He paid $27 million, $1 million in cash. Draft Direct Worldwide took off. The following year, Interpublic Group, one of four giant advertising holding companies, paid the equivalent of $120 million for Howard’s company. Most of the payoff was in IPG stock, which soon doubled in price.

Suddenly the junk-mail king was rich. “I love life” became his new refrain. He carted seven buddies off on a victory tour. Howard is loyal and generous (a couple dozen guys got wealthy in the sale). He rented a Gulfstream IV and took his friends golf-course-hopping from Vegas to Jersey. Limos, lunches, dinners, all on Howard. Howard proceeded to purchase himself an upgrade. He built a $7 million house in—where else?—Aspen. He called a couple of charities (aids kids and pets are his things), and, softy and macher at once, told them, “I’ll fix your problem.” He started buying Dubuffet, Hockney, Ellsworth Kelly. “You know,” he says, “I love modern art.”

And yet Howard’s roots are always there, the slights never too far away. And so at Cannes, Howard couldn’t resist. He beamed a delicious smile at his distinguished audience and offered a warning. Centuries ago, he began, the barbarians passed nearby on their way to sack Rome.

“Well,” he nearly shouted, “we’re back.”

One step in the process of Julie and Sean’s hunt for a new ad agency was the chemistry check. “You’re not buying widgets, okay,” said Sean, “you’re buying—”

“People,” said Julie.

“And you have to know who those people are.”

From the start, Sean and Julie hit it off with Howard. One thing they liked was that he was fun. “Oh, yeah, I’d love to hang out with Howard,” said Julie. During the seven months of the search, Julie and Sean probably weren’t with their spouses and kids more than a dozen days a month. And it wasn’t glamorous on the road. There was that paltry per diem. And don’t even think of expensing alcohol. And then the hotels! “Wal-Mart took pride in it,” said Julie. “Like somehow it’s a badge of honor to say, You know what? I only stay in the worst hotels.”

Still, the road was liberating. People like Howard were an antidote to their pinch-cheeked Bentonville masters. So few of the normal rules seemed to apply to Howard. He’d talk crazy ideas, nonstop, and then he’d do them. Howard had part of a liquor company, Effen Vodka, as in, “Give me a dirty Effen martini.” (He sent Julie six bottles for her birthday.) He owned part of a watch company, ToyWatch. (Sean liked the watch so much he bought one.) And there was a nightclub project in Vegas.


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