Impact on the Advertising Industry

AD AGENCIES STRUGGLE AS BLACKOUT SHUTS OFFICES

'You've Gotta Smile Through It All' Says One CEO

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- When their lights, computers, cell phones, land lines, air conditioners and water pumps suddenly failed on Thursday afternoon, advertising agencies from New York to
Photo: AP
Ad agency staffers faced a gauntlet of challenges Thursday evening as they left dark offices to navigate home through cities where all transportation systems had all stopped. Here, crowds clog the streets around Manhattan's Grand Central Station, which was closed.
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Michigan were plunged into isolation and massive work disruptions.

In New York City, many shops like Grey Worldwide and J. Walter Thompson had invested in post-9/11 emergency-response plans that helped them smoothly manage the initial chaos of the largest blackout in American history. Grey spokeswoman Jan Sneed said pre-designated floor captains policed each office space to make sure it was evacuated. "It worked like a dream," she said.

Communications breakdown
At JWT, however, Owen Dougherty said the contingency plan called for work to shift to servers in Detroit and the agency's Chicago office to become its headquarters. But that assumed phone services would be operating to stitch the various locations together and one of the worst aspects of the blackout was the collapse of the communications infrastructures that supported office phone systems, cell phones and e-mail connections.

Meanwhile, at TBWA/Chiat/Day, "everybody handled it in stride," said spokesman Jeremy Miller, with many employees grabbing their walking shoes and heading toward home through a city whose transportation systems had stopped.

As the blackout continued into Friday, staffers at many agencies across the Northeast reported for work but arrived at buildings that lacked basic sanitation and life-support systems, let alone the comforts of air conditioning or the necessities of phone and computer systems.

Alan Kalter, chairman-CEO of ad agency Doner, was one of many company chiefs who officially closed their offices in affected areas, in this case, Doner's facilities in Detroit and Cleveland.

"It's too dangerous inside," Mr. Kalter said of the Detroit building, which lacked both power and water.

Working outdoors
He said that despite being forced out of their normal working spaces, about 100 members of his Detroit staff spent Friday working outdoors with their laptops in the rain, but under cover, continuing preparations for the agency's Six Flags presentation next week. "We survived a fire, we can survive a little electrical problem," said Mr. Kalter. "You've gotta smile through it all," he added, expressing a sentiment that was common across the broad advertising community grappling with the electrical disaster.

Many ad executives in transit in remote offices were simply unable to communicate with their Northeast offices on Friday. Roy Elvove, a spokesman for Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, was on the phone with a top agency executive when the power failed Thursday afternoon. Twenty-four hours later, he still hadn't been able to contact the Manhattan office.

Echoes of 9/11
Buz Sawyer, managing director of Wieden & Kennedy's office in New York's SoHo district near the former site of the World Trade Center, said he was in a meeting when he looked outside and saw that an ESPN sign had gone dark. "Fortunately, someone had a radio" and the office realized it was a blackout and not a repeat of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, when staffers watched from their office windows as the twin towers collapsed.

Half the Wieden office went to a nearby bar, Milady's. Later the party moved to the "ever so chic" Tribeca apartment of executive creative director Todd Waterbury, Mr. Sawyer said.  

By all accounts, none of the New York- or Detroit-based agencies were open on Friday as power and transportation was spotty at best. Some people were just plain lucky to be away. Ken Kaess, president-CEO of Omnicom's DDB Worldwide, was in Connecticut for a physical so he was spared from the chaos. "I was very lucky," he said. "We've been trying to track people down and so far everyone seems to be doing pretty well. Now I'm trying to get in touch with Michael Bray, our head of Europe, who is supposed to be at the Palace Hotel in New York."  

'Lot of Dasani water'
Andy Berlin said he was in a conference call with his Nestle Purina client when the lights flickered and went out. Non-New Yorkers appeared to be the most concerned. "There was an air of pragmatism," he said, as he and others helped pull an account executive and three Clear Channel employees out of an elevator.

"We have a lot of Dasani water and Coca Cola at the agency, which turned out to be really important." Mr. Berlin walked home over the 59th Street Bridge, but later heard of some friends who spent the night at Bryant Park. "They said it was fun. Like camping out."

A spokesman for Austin, Texas-based GSD&M, an Omnicom agency, said a half dozen staffers were stranded in Detroit, where they were conducting focus groups. He said the six hired a taxicab to drive to Grand Rapids, Mich., 150 miles away to get a flight. "They left at 6 a.m. this morning, he said.  

Last NY agency to lose power
Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, New York, benefited from being one of the last agencies in Manhattan to lose power, said Mike Sheehan, president-CEO of the Interpublic Group of Cos.' shop. He said the agency produced an ad and delivered it to the New York Daily News for a special section distributed today about the outage.

"There were only two ads, one for Macy's and one for Verizon Wireless, and we did [that] one," he said. Mr. Sheehan was in Manhattan for a meeting with Tyco Industries but was airborne when the power went out. "Everything continued to move and people either had hotel rooms or stayed with friends," he said, noting a shoot for Marshall's was interrupted, but that staff found ways to get home or stay with friends.

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Alice Z. Cuneo contributed to this report.

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