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Snakes in the Garden

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The ad wasn’t approved, Howard pleaded. He went through his explanation, point by point. When he saw it, he was as angry as Castro-Wright. He had to be peeled off the ceiling. Plus, the ad had been done months before Howard even won the Wal-Mart account. And anyhow, how does this bear on his ability to expand Wal-Mart’s business?

Castro-Wright didn’t seem to listen. Shouldn’t Howard have taken steps? Shouldn’t he have understood the Wal-Mart culture? The ad appeared to offer Castro-Wright a pivotal insight into the inner Howard: arrogant, showy, gloating. “Maybe,” Castro-Wright told Howard, “our cultures aren’t matched.”

For Julie, looking back, getting fired was almost humorous. What are you doing? Blaming me for your choosing me? I am who I am. Wal-Mart statements carried in the press—the story made the front page of The Wall Street Journal—were initially terse and uninformative. Julie and Sean, who’d worked at Wal-Mart less than a year, had violated company policy. Yes, Nobu! God, we went to Nobu! Julie, eventually, filed a breach-of- contract suit. As much as $1.5 million was at stake. The suit also talked about “false and malicious” information in the press, an apparent reference to allegations of an affair. The legal action seemed to enrage the tight-lipped company. Wal-Mart appeared eager to shut Julie down. An attorney for Wal-Mart spoke to Sean’s wife, Shelley, and tried to enlist her help, according to a person who heard an account of the conversation. The attorney suggested that Wal-Mart hadn’t yet decided whether to pay Sean his bonus. Something under $200,000 was on the line. The Wal-Mart official, seemingly to reassure her of his trustworthiness, mentioned that he attended the same church as Shelley. Did she have any evidence that could be used? They weren’t after Sean but Julie. On Wednesday morning, Shelley—she and Sean are separated—provided company officials with a personal e-mail between Sean and Julie. (A Wal-Mart spokesman confirmed that a conversation took place, but added that “we wouldn’t discuss conversations between a lawyer and a potential witness in a pending lawsuit.”)

“Wal-Mart now has irrefutable and admissible evidence of an inappropriate relationship” between Julie and Sean, Mona Williams, a Wal-Mart spokesperson, told New York last week after almost two months of silence.

Julie, ever bold, held steady. She knew what Wal-Mart had. “It will look sensational, but it’s irrefutable evidence that we’re really good friends,” she said. “He’s like a brother to me.”

“Would you want one isolated e-mail to stand for your whole relationship?” said Sean. “It’s not my lawsuit. To continue to rake me through the mud and to pressure my family is unconscionable.”

And anyhow, wasn’t all the racket really about a couple of violations of company policy? Julie and Sean looked at each other. They didn’t believe it. For them, there was a parallel process under way. Behind the Wal-Mart curtain, panic seemed to have set in. Some of Julie’s ads were already up, and sales still weren’t moving. Wal-Mart had expected a pop, but Christmas didn’t look promising. Even before Julie and Sean and Howard were dumped, the elders of Wal-Mart had started to feel regret. Maybe Julie was the girl you date—flirty, showy, high-strung, full of herself—but not the one you settle down with. Julie had been fun, like Sean (and maybe Howard too). But the fun was over. “I’m sure it was very evident that I was not what they wanted for the long term. I was not … I was way too much,” Julie said. There was some relief. “You shouldn’t have to leave pieces of who you are at the door,” she thought. Gas prices spiked. Wal-Mart returned home, cued up the smiley face, rolled back the prices.

Soon, Fleming, sounding contrite, told the press, “I don’t think Wal-Mart advertising is ever going to be edgy … Our brand is about saving people money.’’

At lunch, we’d finished the wine. Cappuccino and espresso arrived. It was nice to be at Le Bernardin.

It’s also apparently nice to have Wal-Mart behind them.

Julie said she was lucky. As breakups go, this one was rough, and so public. And yet the publicity seems to have served them well.

“Somehow this has made us interesting,” said Sean. “We’ve met people we would have never been able to meet.”

They’re thinking they might do something together—they’ve talked to venture capitalists. Or else take jobs. Lots of people have contacted them. “This has been a godsend,” said Julie, who got one call from Victoria’s Secret. You can’t be too sexy for us! “It’s nice to be around people who like you,” Julie said.

In Howard’s office in New York, CNBC was on the TV. Howard’s one of those rich guys who can’t seem to sit still. In addition to all the businesses, he trades in and out of a handful of stocks. Julie and Sean had been fired on Monday, December 4. Howard heard a couple of days later that Wal-Mart was restarting its agency search and DraftFCB wasn’t invited. The onetime junk-mail king had been anointed. “For a minute,” he says.


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