Monday, December 25, 2006

Brand bites dog.


Ad agency reviews can sometimes be pretty sketchy affairs. The lengths that some agency bosses will go to in order to land an account would make a defense contractor blush. I guess there might be less flat out corruption in the process than there once was, but it remains true today that nothing will make some agencies drop their ethical trousers like the prospect of winning a big, new client. Oh, the things I’ve seen… (cue the distant sound of helicopters)… the horror… the horror…

Anyway. So, a couple of weeks back, a senior vice president working for a famous brand got fired for getting too cozy with one particular agency during a review, the agency that ultimately won the business. The agency that was the object of the coziness also got the hook. After a suitable amount of huffing, a new review was called, and all the other agencies who lost the first time around got back into ‘my uncle’s got a barn, let’s put on a show’ mode to pitch it again. Fascinating stuff, huh?

No? But it was all over the news! Ad Age alone ran seven pieces on the story in their electronic addition the day it broke, and a bunch more as the week unfolded!

Oh, hang on, I forgot to mention: What made it news was brands.

You see, the marketer in question was Wal-Mart. That puritanical cult from Bentonville, an organization so sanctimoniously protective of its moral authority that it won’t even let prospective vendors pay for coffee. And the other brand was Aston Martin. Specifically, the Aston Martin of Howard Draft, boss of the aforementioned ad agency, who offered Wal-Mart’s Julie Roehm a ride in it after a sumptuous repast at a trendy Manhattan boite. The fact that she’d allegedly just sat in the car was just this side of Monica Lewinsky’s dry cleaning bill as prima facie evidence of, well, pretty much everybody’s guilt.

Yeah, I know Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer in the world. And I know that Ms. Roehm came equipped with a reputation of her own (that Lingerie Bowl thing raised the hopes of a whole generation of testosterone-addled creative departments). And I know that a high priced sushi joint on Hudson Street is a long way from Bentonville, Arkansas in every imaginable cultural sense. All that made the story interesting.

But what gave it irony and a heapin’ helpin’ of schadenfreude, what got it on the front pages and made it into a scandal, was the awesome semiotic power of b-r-a-n-d-s. She wasn’t just a marketing boss, she was a fox in Wal-Mart’s henhouse. And he wasn’t just an agency boss; his ride made him an overpaid, arrogant smoothie. That right there is some serious cultural shorthand, kids. Tom Wolfe would have needed 200 pages to explain the motives of those characters. Brands made it happen in six syllables.

I mean, if Howard Draft had been pitching Aston Martin and had taken his prospective client to a nearby Wal-Mart, would we be having this conversation?

Thought not.

Hey, wait. I wonder if that would really work…

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