An Open Letter To Walmart, Julie Roehm and Draft/FCB

Posted by: David Kiley on December 14, 2006

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Walmart is now dealing with the aftermath of dismissing its advertising/communications chief Julie Roehm and a subordinate, Sean Womack, on charges that the two violated the company’s entertainment policies. The retailer took the hard-won $580 million account just awarded to Draft/FCB away from the agency, and now has to find another agency partner. Their old agency, GSD&M, which competred to keep the account and lost to Draft, said it won’t re-enter the review.

The soap opera that led to Roehm’s and Womack’s departures and the yanking of the account from Draft has been played out on BusinessWeek.com, Ad Age, The Wall Street Journal, etc. Specificallly, Roehm appeared at an event held by Draft/FCB in September during the review of the retailer’s $580 million account. She and Womack also attended a dinner at Manhattan restaurant Nobu paid for by Draft. This, of course, is nonsense. Walmart got rid of Roehm because her style and marketing ideas were too much for the company’s culture, and she rubbed people the wrong way.

To Roehm: It’s very difficult for middle-managers to achieve stardom. That’s what you have done at Chrysler and Walmart. Your colleagues resented it, because Walmart is still being depicted as a stumbling giant trying to change its image. You were part of a team, not the Chief Marketing Officer. And you weren’t there long enough to justify the high profile you were creating for yourself. Remember: It’s the whale that comes to the surface that gets harpooned. Walmart has a very conservative culture. You can’t ram change through a place like that. Your decision to appear at Draft/FCB’s Ad Forum new-business presentation and the agency’s dinner at Nobu (first reported by BusinessWeek) was a terrible misjudgment. Not only did you know how strict Walmart’s entertainment policy is, but it was really bad form in the middle of a review. It’s just not done. You have denied an improper relationship with your subordinate, Sean Womack. If that’s the case, you at least acted improperly enough in public view that there was smoke on that, if not fire. We operate in a new world of men and women, and what behavior is acceptable. Every time a door closes behind in an office with a man and woman meeting, it creates chatter. It’s 2006, not 1976.
You have talent and energy. But enough already with always pushing the envelope, at least as it relates to sex. We all like entertaining and engaging ads. But in the history of automotive and mass-market retailing, I have never once seen ads pushing the sexual innuendo envelope build a brand. Want to look at great brand building advertising? Study Toyota.
You’ll get another gig. But your brand has gone from “provocative” to “notorious.” Perhaps you’d be better off channeling all that creativity and energy into a more business-like strategy where you champion the people around you and build consensus around the moves you want to make.
And never ever ever appear on the Bill O’Reilly show again!!!!!

I’m not sure what kind of company on the client/advertiser side of the business would jump at you right now. It seems to me, though, that your talents might be better applied to the ad agency side. With off titles cropping up at agencies all the time, I can envision the title “brand provocateur” or “chief consumer engagement officer” on your business card. Don’t go chasing an agency president job. It won’t suit you.

To Walmart: Give me a break. You didn’t know that Julie Roehm is a lightning rod? A change agent? You didn’t know that she had a track record for pushing the envelope in advertising, especially leveraging sex and sexual innuendo? Did you at least do a Nexis search on her before you hired her? The presentation and Nobu dinner was several weeks before your final decision on choosing Draft/FCB. You never heard about it before that or before my story? You used the dinner violation to get rid of someone who was a bad fit and pushed egos. And some executives have spread rumors that Roehm was also guilty of inappropriate behavior with Sean Womack. It’s bush league to spread those rumors about people who have children unless you have the pictures or are ready to go public.
And by the way—Draft/FCB did not do anything wrong. Inviting Roehm to its event was perfectly reasonable. Any agency is looking for any edge it can find in a review. It was up to the review consultant, Select Resources, to police the communications between agencies and Walmart. And it was a mistake by Roehm to accept. Draft/FCB is a very capable agency under Howard Draft that would likely have done an excellent job for you. It was also bush-league to yank the account from the agency. At a time when Walmart is trying so hard to communicate to investors that it is in firm control of the image and merchandising transformation underway, you have made yourselves look like the Kings of Amateur Hour. The Bush Leaguers from Bentonville.

To Draft/FCB: Keep your head down. Forge ahead. Go out and win the next one.

Reader Comments

Eye Witness

December 20, 2006 7:42 PM

While it all may seem like nonsense to you, the fact remains that the two had an inappropriate relationship with EACH OTHER. The fact that Mr. Womack was a direct report and that they were having a buddy-buddy relationship outside of work, sexual or not is against Wal-Mart policy. Many, including myself, witnessed preferential treatment to him and him alone. The "entertainment policy" loop-hole was the hard evidence you could terminate employment over.

svandals

December 30, 2006 9:49 PM

David,

You are completely wrong on this one. You clearly don't understand the Wal-Mart culture and the importance on following the rules that they have in place to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest between management and suppliers. Julie and her close associates were interviewed by the internal fraud investigators at Wal-Mart following her dinner with Draft.

Julie, like all new associates at the home office in Bentonville, was required to attend an orientation during which the actions that she subsequently took were expressly prohibited and at which time she was told, like everyone else, would result in her dismissal. If she were being fired for being a "lightening rod", there would have been no internal investigation and no mention of the dinner. She was fired for openly flaunting the rules set forth for her by the company.

Change Agent

February 4, 2007 11:59 AM

Way to go Wal Mart!!!
Like most stodgy execs that find themselves floundering, W-M's brown-nosers
are hyperventilating because they've found themselves with the managment equivalent of a giant wedgie. So in true CYA mode, they bring in a change agent and tell her to have at it. But, change means SOMEONE MUST HAVE BEEN WRONG and that just can't be to these stodgy CYA execs, because then THEY WERE TO BLAME. So when someone like Roehm takes the much needed initiative to DO something, horrors! And it's so typical then for these folks to cook up some sort of sexual innuendo to justify that they just couldn't take the medicine or get beyond their own blame game.
Ain't it great - now they focussed the problem on the person who was trying to make much-needed changes - and have bought themselves more time to mismanage by deflecting it all on someone else. Oh you W-M guys - "always."

Heh

February 7, 2007 1:37 AM

Great post, "Change Agent" ;)

Steve Harper

February 17, 2007 11:52 AM

I just read this month's article in BW by Robert Berner which outlines Ms. Roehm's side of the story. I have to say that I think Wal-Mart is to blame here. They absolutely knew who they were getting when they hired Ms. Roehm and what she was bringing to the party. I suspect her edge and her aggressive style was exactly what attracted them to her in the first place.

So why was there such a misfit? Why did both "sides" seem to be playing the game with different rules? It appears that when WM decided that Ms. Roehm was too much and not the best culture fit they blinked. Rather then take ownership for the misstep and openly discuss why things were not working, they simply pulled the rug out from under her.

I don't know if there were ethical misjudgments make by Roehm along the way or not. Like they say there are three sides to every story. But WM leaking that Ms. Roehm was having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate should never have been made public. It shows a total lack of professionalism and a total disregard for the people involved and their families.

I find it ironic that Wal-Mart, who was worried about Roehm's strong sexual approach to brand building, now somehow finds itself playing the sex card with rumors and innuendos designed to further damage and impune this young lady's reputation.

This should be an interesting story to follow as the legal games begin.

Ron

March 23, 2007 2:28 PM

It’s March 23, 2007 and now WMT has released a litany of freebies (multiple meals and entertainment, a watch that I assume was expensive, case of vodka, etc.) that Julie got from Draft, as well as some of the communications between her, Sean Womack, and Draft. The big bombshell besides those goodies was that she and Sean were angling for a job as a team with Draft, as well as getting an equity stake in whatever future setup they might get with Draft. It is all pretty damning and any defenders of Julie who thought it was just about one dinner at Nobu now look like fools for taking her side. A word to the wise, it’s all about her, and she’s looking for useful idiots to help spread her spin on this, like New York magazine did in February 2007. Now that Wal-Mart has shown some of the evidence, it looks like Julie’s version of the saga conveniently omits many things. The “I was a change agent and they couldn’t handle it” is a red herring, a cosmetic patina on the truth. She was a serial corporate policy violator of the worst kind, shaking down a potential supplier competing for WMT’s business that she could help throw somebody’s way. She is also a serial betrayer. She betrayed her husband. She betrayed her children. She betrayed WMT. Sean, you might want to think twice about hitching your wagon to her. As far as the romantic stuff goes, Todd Thompson, the guy who was at Citicorp and messing around with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo got canned for the same thing: spending the corporation’s money furthering their romantic interests. The two most common sense rules apply: don’t get romantically involved with an immediate superior or subordinate (don’t get your honey where you get your money) and don’t commingle the corporate stuff with the romantic stuff (do it on your own time and your own dime).

The article in New York Magazine was a total puff piece with Julie and Sean parading and pandering to who they hope will be their next employer: some big city cosmopolitan phony on the East Coast (or West Coast). That article is so full of half-truths, mischaracterizations, etc that it's comical. Does anyone really believe that Sean Womack was involved early on with the movie Napoleon Dynamite? There are a half dozen other things in that article that set off my “Hollywood b.s. alarm”. Julie and Sean are dealing in the currency of the phony L.A. and NYC types. You can't say that they don't have their shtick down pat. They are auditioning to be allowed and accepted in those circles of bi-coastal behavioral failures (a.k.a. we're just like you, please hire us). Good luck kids. Anybody with any sense would never ever put you in a position of trust, and most likely you'll end up wasting the rest of your lives on the fringes of the ad/marketing world associating only with other smarmy, ethically challenged people doing work of little or no importance of which nobody will notice or care. I think that they are taking solace in the fact that since they were able to con that New York magazine writer, as well as the magazine, into being their useful idiots and buying into and spreading their mischaracterizations, that there are other big city rubes out there that they can roll, and ultimately end up getting a paycheck out of.

This whole episode vindicates and shows the wisdom of Wal-Mart's policies and general corporate practices in the business world of not accepting gifts, nor allowing personal relationships with immediate superiors/underlings. Business was steered to the company providing the best favors, gifts, potential future employment opportunities, etc. and not to the company that could necessarily do the best advertising job for Wal-Mart. The two employees in the relationship spent company money furthering their own romantic interests. Neither of those things are in a company's interests and it becomes abundantly clear that the strict policies Wal-Mart and many other businesses use are wise and proper.
Obviously WMT was incredibly stupid to hire her.

Next Up....

March 25, 2007 10:51 AM

David,

You must be joking with this analysis of yours. Though it certainly is in line with what Business Week generally cranks out and how management operates. You say, "Walmart got rid of Roehm because her style and marketing ideas were too much for the company’s culture, and she rubbed people the wrong way." Really? If truth be told, you folks over at Business Week make it a habit of sugar coating the reality of these type of stories for your livelihood. Isn't that the truth of the matter? That's what you've singlehandedly done yet again.
There is irrefutable evidence that the two were involved in an illicit relationship at the company's expense. Get Real. Next thing up. Business Week will be rewarding/paying these two to write their own column just like they've done with "The Jack and Suzy Welch Show." Who truly cares about proper protocol/eithics in the work place? Certainly not Business Week. Certainly not Jack Welch, certainly not Suzy Wetlaufer who herself was forced out of her Editor's position at the Harvard Business Review for her own flagrant disregard for journalistic ethics, not to mention her own affair with a much younger subordinate before her attention grabbing affair with Jack. As for these two, Roehm and Womack, there is now irrefutable evidence the two were not only involved in an illicit relationship, but that they were reckless and unethical in any number of self-serving ways. Obviously they are concerned with little else other than their own egos and self promotion.
Come on David, call a spade a spade and show some integrity and backbone yourself. Then again, you do work for Business Weak.

(You might suggest to management they offer Roehm and Womack a weekly column. They both need a new gig and Business Week generally obliges.

Ron

March 28, 2007 11:25 PM

Next up...you are right. The problem was that David wrote this column Dec 14. At that time WMT hadn't released much info, while Julie put out her red herrings. Unfortunately for David and his reputation he took her bait, and drank her Kool-Aid. Just like Jesse Jackson did with the accuser of the Duke Lacrosse kids. Just like you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for Jesse to hold a march in Durham, saying "Sorry I jumped to the wrong conclusions and slandered you", so too don't wait for the many people who took Julie's side in Dec 2006, Jan and Feb 2007 to be admitting their mistake. She was looking for usueful idiots (and in fact, she still is) and many people obliged.

Betty

November 5, 2007 8:33 AM

David, David David:
Okay so you reeled me in...Either you're very naive about what goes on in the business world, or Business Week is about to blurr the lines of what is 'real' vs 'Hollywood fantasy'.
I've worked in large corporations for the past 20 years, I've attended so many meetings, conference, seminars, luncheons I can't keep track. I've also witness many office relationships grow, behind close doors, coming into the office late, leaving early, emails, text mails, and any and all that leads to 'most of the time' pure and simple large Ego's Sex, and POWER! Its always about power but, in the end, 99 out of 100 these 'false' relationships die out, and somebody leaves the company.
Believe me, these people aren't stupid they are very aware of what happens if they are caught,they simply do not care...it becomes a 'power game' men vs women if you will...Ms. Roehm attended that dinner to prove to the rest of us, she can hang with the best of these power grabbing men. Believe me, she will move on to more liberal companies and climb the ladder. I've seen it over and over again. These type of women have men for lunch, eat them up and spit them out. Don't under estimate her, or for that matter the likes of Maria Bartiromo either.
These women know how to play the bigger game and are out to win!

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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