Julie and Sean took their public drubbing in stride—look at the upside! Howard has a lot more at stake. He has 9,000 employees worldwide. “I was devastated and embarrassed,” he says. Wal-Mart quickly moved on, choosing Martin (also an IPG company) as its new agency, a smaller, Virginia-based firm, said to be relaxed, easygoing, unostentatious, a better fit. Plus the agency had created Geico’s campaign, whose pitch is Wal-Mart-esque: Save 15 percent. To add to Howard’s dismay, Ad Age withdrew DraftFCB as its choice for agency of the year.
On Madison Avenue, there’s some sympathy for Howard’s unfair fate. And if Castro-Wright didn’t agree, well, there was at least this satisfaction: He was rumored to be on his way out as Wal-Mart president (he denies this). And yet Howard can’t get over his disappointment.
It’s all made worse because Wal-Mart never gave Howard an explanation. What did I do wrong? It plagued him. All he could come up with were a bunch of little infractions. He had his people pore through 20,700 e-mails. He found an e-mail from Tony to Julie about the gift of Effen vodka. And then there were those bantering e-mails between Tony and Julie, like teenage stuff.
But what did it add up to? “We didn’t do anything different than we did with every other client,” says Howard. “So we entertained them, dammit.” Of course, Howard knew the reason. The Julie taint—Wal-Mart had come to think of her as everything it isn’t—had touched him. And then Howard, too, didn’t seem like Wal-Mart’s kind of person. As if to underscore the point, Howard fled to St. Barts for the holidays, taking the French model with him.
In Howard’s office, it’s late, almost 7:30 p.m. Howard’s off to Chicago tomorrow at 7:15. “I’m rethinking showy,” Howard says. Maybe he’ll sell the Aston Martin. It is a throwaway line. Howard’s not going to change. Lately, he’s had a waking dream of another sort. He’ll land another retail client, go head-to-head with Wal-Mart. “If you really think psychologically …” Howard says. For all the showiness, he has few illusions about himself. “I went to Ripon College, and all of a sudden, I’m playing with the biggest corporations in the world. My history, my success—failure is not an option. It’s a personal thing. I’ve got to prove I’m right.”