Snakes in the Garden

Julie Roehm, Wal-Mart's femme fatale.Photo: Joshua Wildman

In the beginning, there was Sam Walton, and he invented Wal-Mart and saw that it was good, and he drove a pickup and wore clothes from his own store, even as he built more across the globe and became the richest man in America. And Sam ruthlessly bullied manufacturers and undersold his competition, crushing mom-and-pop stores across the land. He also decreed that his employees would live as simply as he did, sharing hotel rooms and keeping their expenses to a bare minimum, topping out at $35 a day for food, which is barely enough to buy a decent hamburger in New York. For a long time, things continued this way, even after Sam died. But then other stores like Target began to lure consumers with fancy products and splashy ads, and the elders of Bentonville decided they needed a sexier image. So into the garden they brought two young marketers named Julie Roehm and Sean Womack and a gruff, aggressive adman named Howard Draft. Of course, they got booted out of Eden. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Most people think of Paris or Venice as the kind of city where dreams come true. But Bentonville, Arkansas? It’s a much less common fantasy.

That is, unless you happen to be a marketer. Bentonville is the home of Wal-Mart, the largest retailer and second largest company in the world; just about every American (except, of course, for New Yorkers) lives within a half-hour of a Wal-Mart. For a decade or more, its advertising approach had barely budged. And so, to the advertising world, Bentonville seemed like an undiscovered continent, the kind where bold people might make their mark (and a fortune), might, perhaps, create a brand-new world.

For 30 years, Wal-Mart’s advertising needs were handled by the same two firms, one southern and one midwestern, arrangements that folksy Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton had sealed with a handshake. Who needed fancy ads when Wal-Mart bulldozed the competition with rock-bottom prices? Except that growth on a per-store basis had slowed by half over the past five years. And so Wal-Mart had lately begun to experience something strange: dissatisfaction. The wise men of Bentonville wondered if a little change wouldn’t do them good.

In January 2006, shortly before dumping its old ad relationships, Wal-Mart hired a vivacious young blonde named Julie Roehm. The company made her a senior vice-president and told her to rethink its image, the assignment of a lifetime. Previously, Julie had been in Detroit, first at Ford, then at DaimlerChrysler, where she had made a big reputation in a field almost as predictable as retail. Julie’s weapon of choice—at least the one she became known for—was something not much discussed around the watercooler in Bentonville: sex. There was, for instance, her memorable TV spot for the Dodge Durango SUV, which featured two guys side-by-side at urinals: “It’s seven inches longer,” says one. “My girlfriend loves it.” Of course, they’re talking about the Durango, which is seven inches longer and, if you look close, pictured in a poster on the bathroom wall.

People in Bentonville also found plenty of sex in Julie’s personal presentation—the hair, the legs, the big blue eyes—though, for all the talk about what later went wrong, she seemed wholesome by New York standards, Rachael Ray as a midwestern business executive. Maybe, so the thinking went, she just might be bold enough to teach Wal-Mart the facts of life in the 21st century.

At Wal-Mart, Julie was teamed with Sean Womack, a similarly fresh-faced vice-president hired the same month from ad giant Saatchi & Saatchi’s Arkansas outpost. Their chief assignment was to search for a new ad agency. They spent seven months on the road together, becoming something like office spouses. Which was how the whispering started back in Bentonville. Were they more than colleagues? In October, Sean and Julie introduced the solid citizens of Bentonville to the cheerful id of Madison Avenue in the person of Howard Draft. Howard, 53, had climbed from the bottom of the ad business, out of a pile of junk mail, which is what he built his first empire on. By the time Julie discovered him, he had, by force of will, taken over one of advertising’s venerable old-line agencies and upgraded his lifestyle to fit his new station. He drove an Aston Martin, built himself an architectural showplace in Aspen, Colorado, and bought up a bit of modern art. Oh, and he dated models (traits that would later become issues with Wal-Mart). With all the success, Howard still had a dream. Howard sometimes saw himself as the future king of advertising. Bentonville, with its $580 million advertising budget, was where he was going to earn the crown.

Howard Draft at his Chicago office.Photo: Paul D'Amato

Perhaps everyone should have understood what would happen to this unlikely team of Sean, Julie, Howard, and Wal-Mart. But at the start everyone was full of hope.

At Le Bernardin last month, the waiter offered us Champagne, a favorite drink of Julie’s. “Almonds,” she said, after a sip of Veuve Clicquot. Sean and Julie hadn’t yet talked extensively about their experience, not together, but in this lovely restaurant, they seemed eager to review the early-warning signs, the ones they’d missed. Julie is tall and, in tight jeans, leggy; Sean looks straight out of a J.Crew catalogue: navy blazer, wrinkled white shirt, plus a handsome angular face and wedge of thick dark hair. He’s 37, though he looks younger, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“He’s older than I am,” Julie, 36, pointed out with delight.

Sean is actually from Arkansas. “People are always surprised that I’m from there,” he said.

“Because you’re so not … from there,” Julie said.

Julie and Sean get along effortlessly, “two crazy kids,” as Sean later put it, sharing ideas of what marketing could be. “A science,” said Julie, who studied engineering at Purdue and then business at the University of Chicago.

Sean, before Saatchi, had tried to be a Hollywood producer—he was involved with Napoleon Dynamite at an early stage. At Saatchi, he helped redesign a depressing Wal-Mart in Plano, Texas—his version was cool, quiet, and sold sushi. It also boosted sales. As Julie put it, “You’d say, ‘Where am I?’ ”

Possibly, Julie and Sean, with their affinity for sushi and Champagne, should have realized that they weren’t a perfect fit for Wal-Mart. At Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, dead since 1992, is still the presiding presence. The year Walton was named the richest man in America, he wore clothes from Wal-Mart and drove an old pickup. He didn’t appreciate a showy style and was sure his customers didn’t either. On the road, people were supposed to share hotel rooms, though they didn’t mix the sexes. Meals were capped at $35 a day for New York City—$25 elsewhere.

His company was also relentlessly democratic. The folklore held that if the head of a Hollywood studio flew in to hawk DVDs, he’d still get his 30 minutes—that’s the time limit—with the designated associate, as employees are called, probably a young, well-scrubbed fellow in short white sleeves. And this fellow would beat him up on prices just as he did every vendor. (“Don’t ever feel sorry for a vendor” is one Wal-Mart pearl.) He’d do that in one of about 40 compact gray meeting rooms on the wall of which was a stern warning: ASSOCIATES … DO NOT ACCEPT FOR THEIR PERSONAL BENEFIT GRATUITIES, TIPS, CASH, SAMPLES, ETC. You couldn’t accept a cup of coffee.

Another element of the Walton creed was that Wal-Mart is about the company; individuals are secondary. It’s company as family, and every Saturday morning at 7:30, Walton (a famous early riser) insisted that everyone at headquarters meet together. It was a business review, though Walton also liked to lead a cheer: “Give me a W … Give me an A … ” For the punctuation in the middle of the name, the call was “Give me a squiggly,” at which point hundreds of employees shook their booties.

Julie and Sean didn’t exactly take to the Bentonville style. To them, and to the Madison Avenue types as well, the culture Walton created felt like a straitjacket. At Saatchi, Sean had a balcony overlooking a lake. Wal-Mart’s office walls were windowless and battleship gray—only top executives had windows—and so were the desks. Julie’s conference table was a foldout card table.

Julie couldn’t bear it. “I bought my paint at Wal-Mart, my ladder, my equipment, and I went in at six o’clock one night and painted my walls chartreuse and the trim brown,” she says. “It looked like a Key-lime pie. At least it was bright.”

Sean identified. “I felt different than people there,” he says.

They found the place a little creepy, cultlike. Sean still remembers when he was going to buy a Ralph Lauren T-shirt. Shouldn’t you buy Wal-Mart clothing? he was asked. Sean started noticing, “Wow, a lot of people at the home office actually do buy their clothes at Wal-Mart. That’s odd.”

People were so satisfied with themselves, just not curious. It was like, Who needs the rest of the world?

Of course, it’s a question worth asking. You might argue that the country needs Wal-Mart rather than the other way around. After all, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the country. It opens a staggering 350 stores a year in the U.S. alone, the equivalent of a national chain every year. No wonder that for years, the aw-shucks company was self-assured, secretive, and immune to just about everything. Who needed a new ad campaign? For the last ten or so years, Wal-Mart had been perfectly content relying on a yellow smiley face—sometimes dressed up as Robin Hood!—to announce low prices. It was the only marketing idea Wal-Mart seemed to have. But then, as Sean and Julie were told, at Wal-Mart, marketing was referred to as the graveyard where merchants stopped off before retiring.

The DraftFCB ad that caused the trouble; below, Roehm's risqué Durango spot.

Sean and Julie agreed that Wal-Mart needed something new, something more than, as Sean said, “a frozen smiley dressed up in goofy costume flitting about the store knocking over prices.”

Besides, Wal-Mart’s vigor has slackened. Target’s per-store sales have grown at twice the rate of Wal-Mart’s in the past two years. Wal-Mart’s stock has long hovered in the same range, while Target’s has doubled in the past four. Wal-Mart is brutally efficient; it squeezes the waste out of everything. But Target has Isaac Mizrahi clothes and Philippe Starck trashbins—on which, by the way, the margins are terrific. At Wal-Mart, you save two cents here, nineteen cents there. At Target, shopping is an experience. Soccer moms—people who buy for taste as well as price—bound in.

To Sean and Julie and to new chief marketing officer John Fleming, a former Target executive, all this foretold exciting times. Julie had a solid, if flamboyant, reputation in Detroit. Her work had raised sales and, in the process, got her inducted into the American Advertising Federation’s Hall of Achievement for young executives. Now Fleming told Julie, “Give me two or three years, we’re going to totally change the way the world’s largest company does marketing.” Fleming, by the way, let them know he didn’t really care for the smiley face.

Under Julie’s direction, Wal-Mart tested new approaches. One TV spot was called “Sexy.” Later, everyone made a big fuss over the ad, as if it were terrifically outré. To Julie, it was hardly sexy. And, anyhow, they never got to see if it worked.

Over lunch, Sean and Julie told the story. The ad begins with a wife sitting on her husband’s lap one Christmas morning.

“She opens her present and this … ” said Sean.

“Red,” said Julie.

“Like grandmotherish sort of nightgown … ” said Sean.

“She’s not like a lingerie model.”

“Not remotely hot.”

“She rubs it against her cheek.”

“And so about the time where this is really … ”

“… Starting to get uncomfortable …”

“Like, ‘Oh, please’; you get a reverse shot of the living room with the whole family sitting there.”

“Grandma, grandpa, kids.”

“One of their teenage sons says, ‘Will you guys please stop?’ Which is the laugh line.”

The ad, said Julie, aired during Desperate Housewives. Fleming read Julie the follow-up e-mail from CEO Lee Scott. Apparently, two women called Wal-Mart to complain. The ad was pulled (as was, by the way, the Durango ad). “Two people watching Desperate Housewives!” says Julie. “Could the irony be worse?”

Howard Draft does his business in one of four tawny-yellow chairs circling a coffee table. “My trademark,” says Howard. His office décor was one of the things that struck Julie as she and Sean ran the search for a new ad firm. “He doesn’t have a desk!” she told me. “How do you not like a guy like that?”

On one wall, Howard has a flat-screen TV, always on, the volume off. Howard has kept quiet in the press; he felt muzzled. Lately, his career has been summed up by the Wal-Mart experience. To Howard, that’s not fair.

In his office,Howard jogs to the office shelves, sweeps up an armful of photos, piles them on the low coffee table for me to examine. Most feature his wife, as he calls her, though she’s his ex-wife.

“Are you still in love with her?” I ask.

“Oh, yeah,” he says.

There was also a photo of his ex-girlfriend, an Italian. Howard can’t resist. He lets me know that she’s “a global model.” And yet it’s another sad note. Howard and the global model split up this summer after four years. “It broke his heart,” says a friend. “We spoke six times a day, sometimes at three in morning. All his insecurities surfaced. He wears them on his sleeve.”

Howard, I know, is now squiring around another model, this one French. “How do you get the beautiful girls?” I ask.

“It’s not because I’m cute. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking I’m winning them over with my charm,” says Howard. “It’s probably because I’ve been successful.” Howard’s the dumpy guy who, as one friend puts it, gets the prom queen. Ostentatious, showy success is his calling card and also his revenge, personally and, as it turns out, professionally. (It’s no coincidence that every year, he watches The Godfather, a how-to guide to retribution.)

Howard directed me to a speech he gave a few years ago at Cannes, where the industry’s most prestigious awards are bestowed on the most creative ads. After two decades in the business, Howard was finally invited to speak—it was Howard’s coming out—and he didn’t waste any time repaying the favor. “I have a fight to pick,” Howard told his audience of creatives.

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?”


“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Snakes in the Garden