NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Last Monday, at the swanky Simon restaurant at The Palms hotel in Las Vegas, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Sin City strip and the peaks of the Spring Mountains, a small group of Mullen creatives and account folks dined with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, his top marketers and other key execs.
It was Mullen's first meeting with Mr. Hsieh, the pizzeria worker-turned-millionaire-shoe salesman and social-media guru, and represented the final, and most casual, in a series of "chemistry check" meetings between the Interpublic agency and the red-hot online retailer. The agency was one of three finalists that included holding company sibling DraftFCB and WPP-backed CHI & Partners.
Seventy-two hours later, back in Boston, Mullen got the call saying it had landed the account. It was the culmination of one of the more interesting agency reviews in recent memory -- interesting partly because Zappos put out a much-publicized RFP that attracted more than 100 competing agencies; partly because the review was briefly interrupted by the small matter of Zappos being acquired for $880 million by online retail ruler Amazon; but interesting mainly because this was possibly the first time that a company with social marketing baked into its DNA had set out to vet and choose the best of a bunch of ad agencies.
Zappos' review kicked off early this summer, and for some the report from AdAge.com that Mullen had come up trumps was like the smart of acid indigestion after a meal they'd already found unpalatable. Commenters called the pitch "a colossal time-suck" and said Mullen triumphed in a "frenzied lottery game." Their negativity was based on a feeling that Zappos' allowing so many agencies to spend so much time and money competing for business in the middle of a recession was irresponsible. During the process, one agency, California-based Ignited, underscored that point by tracking how much time the online retailer had spent reviewing its submission (14-seconds per page, it claimed), and publicly criticized the retailer for the way it ran the review.
It's unlikely to appease the critics to learn that Mullen had actually been talking to the retailer for the better part of a year, since participating -- and closely missing winning -- a PR pitch that the retailer held several months ago.
Weeks before the RFP was due back, a team of Mullen folks flew out to Zappos' Vegas headquarters for a complete tour. Mark Wenneker, managing partner and executive creative director at Mullen, recalled the culture at Zappos' Vegas headquarters as being even more fun-loving than he expected. After being greeted by a dancing, joke-telling receptionist named Jerry, the team toured the facility and shadowed customer-relations representatives.
"That visit was a big piece of discovery," Mr. Wenneker said. "A lot of times you do pitches and you don't get to the client until after you've already submitted the RFP." With ideas fresh in their minds, he and his teammates wrote the brief in the airport bar on their way back to Boston.
On July 16, the team was asked to fly out to Las Vegas to present the campaigns to Zappos' top marketers, Michelle Thomas, brand marketing manager and Aaron Magness, Zappos' head of business development and brand marketing. At that point it was one of 22 agencies. In mid-August, Mullen was told it was one of three final agencies Zappos was considering, and that Mr. Magness and Ms. Thomas would be visiting Boston for a follow-up in September.
Mullen greeted the duo by turning the reception area into a Zappos shipping box, entertained them with a boat ride and shared more ideas for the brand. Until the final round, only Zappos' Ms. Thomas and Mr. Magness were involved.
According to Zappos' Ms. Thomas, Mullen cinched the deal because it simply understood Zappos' distinctive culture better than the other agencies.
"One thing about our company is we're slow to hire employees and quick to fire," Ms. Thomas said. "We take the same approach with vendors. They were the one agency that didn't come in and try to change us and say 'This is what you need to do.'"
For many companies, that kind of "great chemistry, understood our culture," argument might sound like a flimsy cover for a more mercenary rationale. But for Zappos this stuff clearly matters -- it publishes an annual company-culture book, written by the employees, about what it means to work there.
The fact that Mullen is a one-stop, integrated agency helped too, Ms. Thomas said. "They really have everything -- creative and analytics. ... We're a direct-response company, so the ability to tie offline metrics to an online world is huge for us. And we were impressed by their media-buying and planning capabilities and how they tie a lot of our loose ends together." Mullen's history of retail experience helped, as it's handled a range of retail accounts over the years including T.J. Maxx, Eddie Bauer, Stride Rite and L.L. Bean. But in the end, "It came down to the whole package," Ms. Thomas said.
But what of social media? Surely that would be a deciding factor, given Mr. Hsieh's 1.3 million Twitter followers and the fact he announced the Amazon deal via a tweet and a blog post? Surely, we can attribute Mullen's victory to its resident social-media guru, Edward Boches, with his thousands of followers? Well, actually, no and no.
Mr. Hsieh, as a true leader in the space, understands that social media isn't something you can simply bolt on; it's a way of doing business and something that has to be baked into the culture. In fact, during the last leg of the review he fired off this tweet: "Embarking on a social-media strategy to help with marketing is like embarking on a facial muscle strategy to help with smiling."
That was something Mullen understood. The agency didn't try to trot out social marketing as if it were an ad medium, and it even resisted the temptation to put Mr. Boches front and center. Instead leading the charge were Alex Leikikh, Mullen's managing partner and director of account service -- thrown into the pitch when he joined Mullen this past June from Publicis Groupe's Fallon, Minneapolis -- and Mr. Wenneker, who joined Mullen last summer from Omnicom's highly respected Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.
The win for Mullen comes as the office is going through a bit of a reinvention, adopting a philosophy dubbed "Unbound," meant to convey the shop's media-agnostic beliefs. The agency -- which also has offices in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Pittsburgh; and Detroit -- recently moved its headquarters from an old mansion on the rolling hills of Wenham, Mass., into downtown Boston.
While a new office isn't precisely going to win an account, agency insiders note that the new digs' contemporary feel and the energy of being in the heart of a buzzing city didn't hurt. The addition of a hot new brand like Zappos to its roster is a boost in a year of churn for Mullen, which has included the addition of Ernst & Young, NHL franchise Boston Bruins, Nutrisystem and the loss of Orbitz creative, Panera Bread media, and T.J. Maxx creative after a decade.
As Zappos' new full-service agency, Mullen will take on and replace both of the retailer's former shops, Ad Store and Gotham Direct, both in New York. But Zappos will continue to work with Kel & Partners in Boston for PR, and King Fish Media, Salem, Mass., for direct mail and catalog products.
Zappos, which in its RFP said it expects to have an ad budget of just $7 million next year, said Mullen will spend the remainder of the year on research and brand development, and will roll out a new campaign in 2010 that will focus on showing customers that the retailer is about more than sneakers and pumps. Hinted Mr. Wenneker: "In one word, clothing."