Plus, Howard’s titillating lifestyle was on display. He parked the $180,000 Aston Martin DB9 at the curb. He wore his rare Patek Philippe, slipping it off if you wanted a closer look. He wasn’t shy about revealing prices. Somehow it wasn’t obnoxious. Howard seemed to go through life pinching himself. “He’s like a big kid. It’s very infectious,” said Sean, who had looked forward to a relationship with Howard. Howard could be fatherly, offering advice. “We talked about life. He really became a friend,” said Sean. When Sean confided that his marriage was going through a troubled period, Howard related his own wrenching tale of packing his bags, leaving his kids. “I wish I hadn’t divorced,” Howard said.
One night, Howard took Julie and Sean to a hamburger dinner at the Luxbar in Chicago. His Aston Martin waited outside. On the way out, Julie sat in it to get the feel. Go ahead, push the starter button. The engine wouldn’t turn over. (Howard had to have his James Bond car towed.)
So they walked to the Peninsula Hotel for drinks. Howard passed around cigars. Even Julie smoked one. As always, everything was on Howard’s tab. That’s what agency guys do. They entertain clients, and in style. You want to see a Chicago Bulls game, Howard’s going to get you floor seats. And really, what could Julie and Sean afford on their tight budget?
Perhaps it was at the Peninsula that night that Howard flipped open his cell phone. He had a photo to show off. It was his “friend,” the French model from the Ford agency, who just happened to be naked.
Julie and Sean spent loads of time with other agencies, probably the most with Roy Spence, the S in Texas-based GSD&M, which Walton had hired two decades earlier. Julie had one agency over for a barbecue, another got invited to a Saturday-morning associates meeting. Howard’s people did get a few extras, mainly, Julie said, because they asked. Sean attended a brainstorming session at Howard’s company. And Julie, in what would become a pivotal plot point, spoke at Howard’s presentation to ad consultants, who help match companies with ad agencies. It was before Wal-Mart selected its agency. Julie said she wasn’t endorsing Howard. She was just there to say that she liked his approach, a distinction lost on some of the consultants.
The distinction got further muddled when Julie came by the dinner afterward, invited by one of Howard’s people. It was at Nobu 57—Howard wasn’t one to spare expense—with the cool onyx-and-walnut bar and the giant chandeliers of abalone shells, the David Rockwell design. Howard ordered six courses, including Kobe beef, and Julie enjoyed herself, as many in attendance noticed. She had something to drink and made a night of it. Howard remembers that she paid him back for the Effen vodka, her birthday present (per Wal-Mart policy), $200 in cash. And she had some fun. Who said you couldn’t let loose occasionally? She plopped onto the lap of one of Howard’s lieutenants, Tony Weisman. Tony and Julie constantly e-mailed back and forth, most of it business, though you couldn’t help but be friendly after a while. There was one 11 p.m. set of e-mails: What are you doing? What are you drinking? Julie’s a friendly gal, and an agency wants to be friends, though when she took up a position on Tony’s lap, even Howard thought that wasn’t great, appearance-wise.
Last year, when Foote Cone & Belding was in talks to merge with Howard’s company, many assumed that he would end up in the supporting role, shoring up FCB’s direct marketing. But as happens so often, Howard had been underestimated. “If you want to take it to a whole other level, how about if we go do something really ballsy?” Howard asked execs at IPG, which owns both companies. “Howard had oomph, charisma,” said an IPG executive. Why not bring direct marketing in from the cold? Rather than the intra-agency competition for the client dollar, have everyone work together and enforce it by having just one balance sheet. The real ballsiness, though, was that the engine of the new entity would be the direct-marketing approach, data-driven, results-oriented, measurable, accountable. Howard had been waiting for this one for a long time. As he once put it, “There’s been a lot of times I felt if we could get a general agency to be part of us that we could change the game.” Howard emerged with the new entity under his control and his name on the door: DraftFCB. Never had a dreck marketer taken down such a large prize.
Not everyone rejoiced. “One of the darkest moments in the history of an increasingly troubled ad industry,” sniped one ad columnist.