Wal-Mart Starts New Agency Shopping Spree

14 December 2006

NEW YORK: What Madison Avenue denizens want for Christmas - really, really want for Christmas - is the chance to pitch again for Wal-Mart's newly liberated $580 million (€438.3m; £295.1m) advertising and media-buying accounts.

And Santa arrived right on cue, thanks to last weekend's triple bust-up between the planet's largest retailer, its senior vp of marketing Julie Roehm and ex-agency of just two months' tenure DraftFCB.

The scenario leading up to this debacle has all the elements of uncontrolled nuclear fission. It began in January when buttoned-down country rich kid Wal-Mart hired Roehm, a glamorous, glitzy former Chrysler marketer.

It proved a marriage made in hell. Roehm was Porsche, sex and rock-and-roll to Wal-Mart's Pontiac, family values and Barry Manilow.

Not at all the late Sam Walton's cup of tea - nor that of his straight-laced successors, most of whom are said to view a night of passion as a bedtime encounter with the firm's latest EBITDA printout.

Hired with a mandate to inject some carbon dioxide into Wal-Mart's flat, price-cut-driven advertising, Roehm oversaw the agency review that appointed DraftFCB to handle creative and Carat media buying.

But her Manhattan-centric selection methods were oil and water to Wal-Mart's traditional procedures for choosing an agency. Former incumbents Bernstein-Rein and GSD&M - hailing respectively from Kansas City and Austin, Texas - were handpicked by a Bentonville management committee.

Whereas Roehm's selection technique mirrored her reputation for being outgoing and controversial. She invited agency executives to an Eagles concert and attended agency-sponsored events, including a party hosted by DraftFCB at ritzy Manhattan sushi eaterie Nobu.

It was the latter event, according to insiders, that triggered Roehm's downfall - along with her close Wal-Mart colleague Sean Womack, vice president of communications architecture.

From the first nibble of tempura, she was in conflict with Wal-Mart's draconian ethics policy that forbids employees from accepting even a cup of coffee from suppliers or potential suppliers.

AdWeek reports that she also shot herself in the other foot by referring publicly, and in glowing terms, to DraftFCB at the AdForum event in New York, giving attendees the impression that the Interpublic shop had already won the business - three weeks before final presentations.

Wal-Mart has yet to disclose the reason behind the abrupt departures and DraftFCB's firing, saying only it had taken these actions on the basis of "new information".

Meantime, finalists from the last round of the competition will learn this week "who is eligible" to repitch, how the second review will be managed, and who will pay for the sandwiches.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams declined to say if additional agencies will also be invited. The result is expected to be announced by February 1.

Data sourced from USA Today Online and AdWeek (USA); additional content by WARC staff