Friends, former associates and clients ask, "How could this marvelous agency that flourished and attracted many of the world's largest and most sophisticated clients practically disintegrate in months?"
There is a lesson in the decline of Wells Rich Greene. If you plan to acquire a service business, don't be misled by the balance sheet. You will be acquiring relationships, which you will find nowhere on the balance sheet. You will be acquiring space in the clients' mind and an ingrained set of expectations toward your company.
Wells Rich Greene was founded in 1966 by Mary Wells Lawrence. A brilliant, charismatic and glamorous leader, she was the first to break through the "glass ceiling."
From the beginning, our culture was different. Mary was an intuitive nurturer of clients and talent. If agencies have genders, ours was feminine. It felt more like a Mediterranean family than like the typical macho boys' clubs of our larger and traditional Madison Avenue competitors of the era.
ETHNIC MELTING POT
We were an ethnic melting pot. Sexism and prejudice of any kind were not allowed. We worked all hours and fought and argued over ideas. Even screamed and slammed doors. But we respected each other and rarely went home mad.
Many of the best and brightest creative people cut their teeth in this hot, often flamboyant, environment. Some moved on to star in other creative endeavors, like Bob Kuperman, who is president-CEO of TBWA Chiat/Day; Stan Dragoti, who directed "Mr. Mom" and "Love at First Bite"; Dan Staley, who wrote for "Cheers" and created "George & Leo"; and Andy Lack, who is president of NBC News. WRG birthed an astounding number of successful free-lance commercial directors, including Paul Guliner, Rick Levine, Rob Lopes and Michael Ulrich.
Our style and creative product and our unique founder became famous. But the foundation of our enterprise was the quality of our relationships with our clients and each other. The soul of our company was appreciation for the opportunities granted us by our clients, their confidence, their loyalty and the money they paid us.
We could not have succeeded had we not had the creative talent, like Charlie Moss, to produce brilliant advertising. But the fountainhead of our strength was our devotion to our clients and the resulting alliances.
Relationships were a strategic passion at Wells Rich Greene, not a by-product. We were as creative about our relationships as we were about our advertising. In an era when a relationship meant an occasional golf game or night on the town, we showered our clients (and each other) with thoughtful and caring attention.
Our approach: Step into the middle of our clients' lives and nurture. Surround their businesses as if we had mothered them. Make their careers our business, too.
We conducted relationships with attitude and street smarts. We once leased Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, to stage a coed client vs. agency softball game under the lights to work through tensions and have some laughs.
We paid attention to small things, things as simple as a private lunch in the office served on fine china with silver and linens. The intimate meetings were never casual. We sought the answer to a business or relationship question; to deliver the solution to a problem; or to present a business-building idea.
We did not save ourselves for top management. We visited clients of all ranks. Most importantly, we nurtured our professionals, and they learned from us and developed their personal skills. They learned to provide and to deliver all they could in any situation. Thus, WRG's superlative team developed familylike bonds at every level of the client organization, creating a glamorous and exclusive club.
In time we became first-name friends with many client spouses and children. Mary frequently invited clients' wives to lunch, often at her apartment. We career-counseled their children and helped them find jobs. We helped clients shop for birthday and anniversary gifts.
The late Bob Goldstein, advertising VP for Procter & Gamble Co., described us as follows: "If you're looking for a traditional relationship with few surprises, Wells Rich is not for you. But if you want a red-hot love affair, they are your folks."
And red-hot love affairs they were, with clients like Braniff, Chase, Ford, Hertz, ITT, Liberty Mutual, Midas, New York State, the New York Stock Exchange, Philip Morris, P&G, Sheraton, Ralston Purina, Warnaco and others.
INTENSE PERSONAL APPROACH
Our intense personal approach was not for everybody. We missed out on many new-business pitches and lost some good clients and people along the way. But we weren't about to change.
We matured and became a respected and unique brand, known for its elan and creative heritage. We stood out in a business increasingly dominated by bland, financially oriented communication conglomerates. When Mary began to withdraw from the daily pressures, we worked hand-in-hand to create a seamless transition, honoring first and foremost our culture and our client relationships.
What happened to stop the ascent of this thriving enterprise? Is there a lesson to be learned by our history? Or is it just a matter of "what goes up must come down?"
Like so many "family" businesses, Wells Rich Greene was eventually acquired. Then reacquired. What acquirers often fail to understand, especially when it comes to service businesses, is that they are acquiring a culture and a philosophy. They can't buy the accounts. The clients of any service business own their accounts. The clients can do with them what they will. And, if a client has joined into a culture and a philosophy built on caring relationships, they will move on if those relationships are not honored and fed and nurtured.
Mr. Olshan was chairman of Wells Rich Greene from 1982 to 1990, and chairman-CEO of Wells Rich Greene BDDP from 1990 to 1995. Presently, he is a director for Saatchi & Saatchi and Footstar, both publicly owned companies; provides strategic advice to several major corporations; and is a freelance writer.