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Snakes in the Garden

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A few days after the merger, Wal-Mart officially started its search for a new agency, and Howard began pitching it. He eventually put 200 people on the project, which would cost him close to $2 million.

DraftFCB came up with an intriguing creative concept: “A Life Well Spent,” which might appeal to that selective Target shopper. But Sean and Julie were most intrigued by Howard’s direct-marketing capabilities. “What Wal-Mart needs most isn’t a clever television campaign,” explained Julie. “It needs to understand who its customers are and how to target them specifically.” Wal-Mart is numbers-driven—it knows how many items every cashier rings up every hour. At its presentation, DraftFCB showed how to mine Wal-Mart’s enormous data stream. It proposed to tell the giant retailer how to reorient merchandise and ads, market by market, perhaps store by store.

Julie and Sean liked Howard’s agency for another reason. They understood something about him. “He had more at stake than the others,” said Sean. “He’s up from direct marketing, and he’s got to prove himself,” said Julie. “He was not going to let this thing fail.” In October 2006, Howard won nine of ten votes from Wal-Mart’s decision-making committee. He celebrated with the mayor of Chicago, his hometown. And immediately made plans to hire 200 new people. Advertising Age let it be known that DraftFCB would be its agency of the year, which was probably Howard’s last bit of good news.

At Le Bernardin, Sean started in on a story. He and Julie were relating admiring anecdotes about each other.

“Let me think of a good one to really exemplify who you are but is also a fun story,” said Julie. She addressed Sean.

“You can’t say most of the good ones, right?” she asked, tweezing an eyebrow between thumb and forefinger.

It’s easy to see why liaison talk got started. In fact, such gossip had long been watercooler chat. “I’d bet the farm on it,” said one person who spent time with them. Julie scoffed. She’s a guy’s girl, flirtatious, maybe playful, a lap-sitter, but so what? “I’ve always been more friends with men than women,” she said. Her preference invariably led to talk of escapades. “Always, always, always,” she said. “I’ve never worked at a place where there wasn’t.”

Sean shifted gears, returning to the theme of the stodgy gray empire and the plucky kids. Here’s an amusing story. It’s about how they were fired.

“Shut up,” Julie interrupted. She’s teasing, but serious too. “You can’t tell that story. It’s going in my book.” She’d been approached to write a book.

“I can’t tell the story because it goes in your book and you make really good money…?” asked Sean

“I’d share my royalties with you!”

“You have that on the record,” Sean said to me and laughed.

Julie laughed, too. “Okay, tell your why-it-was-funny-to-be-interrogated story.”

On November 30, Sean and Julie were in Howard’s office in Chicago, discussing how the process would unfold, when Julie got called out. Returning, she told Sean, “They’re sending a corporate jet.” Wal-Mart president Eduardo Castro-Wright wanted to talk about the agency process. A few minutes later, Sean got the nicest e-mail in the world. “Sean, why don’t you come in and do this Eduardo meeting as well?”

They landed in Bentonville at about 6:30 in the evening. Fleming and Castro-Wright were waiting. Sean was led down a long corridor to a tiny office. The head of security and a guy from legal were waiting for him. Julie went to a separate room. “The head of security flips his legal pad open and starts a 45-minute interrogation,” said Sean, which, even then, nervous as he was, he thought ridiculous.

There was a question about an inappropriate relationship, of course. That juicy rumor. But that wasn’t the main point. “The only people they drill me about are Howard’s,” said Sean, “over and over again.” When did you go to DraftFCB? How often did you see his people? The dinner at Nobu 57 comes up. Why did you have dinner with them? How often? Who paid? Why had Sean been to the brainstorming? Did he receive gifts? Wal-Mart, it seemed clear, was convinced that the process hadn’t been fair, that Sean and Julie showed “repeated and inappropriate favoritism” toward Draft, as it was later put. Later, Wal-Mart claimed that Sean had even nosed around for a job at DraftFCB.

On December 1, the day after Julie and Sean were interrogated, Howard got his. He flew into the teeth of an Arkansas snowstorm, heading to Bentonville. Castro-Wright wanted some explanations. The Wal-Mart president made it clear that his concern wasn’t Howard’s ability to do the job. According to people who heard accounts of the meeting, he focused on Howard the person. He mentioned a BusinessWeek article that trotted out Howard’s playboy habits, his showy tastes. The Aston Martin. The shindig at Nobu 57. But what really galled Castro-Wright, what he couldn’t get past, was the ad, the infamous trade ad for DraftFCB, which appeared just a couple of weeks after Howard won the Wal-Mart account. It featured a photograph of a lion mounting a lioness. And the tagline: It’s good to be on top. At the bottom was the name of Howard’s company.


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