Posted by: David Kiley on December 14, 2006
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.