Don't Hate the Player, Hate the Game

How the Nissan Multicultural Review Proves Chris Rock's Point

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
I like Chris Rock. I like his new special "Kill The Messenger." About Barack Obama, he riffs that the candidate thinks he "can win this thing fair and square. Like he thinks having the most votes is gonna mean something." He goes on to say that the rules will change, adding that "they will do it with a straight face too. ... 'You got the most votes! Too bad you lost. That's how we used to do it. We don't really count votes that much no more.'" Perhaps Mr. Rock would like to do some stand-up for the advertising community in relation to the Nissan multicultural review. After all, the material about rule changing is already written.

I am not privy to the exact information that was given to participating agencies. I don't know who knew what when. I only know what people seemed to believe, which was the next Nissan agency would be an existing minority-owned business. "Existing" was the operative word. Feels like a "maybe you didn't read the fine print" moment. Did anyone ever actually say or hear the word "existing"? Instead, the account went to a new umbrella agency that will be minority-owned by Omnicom and draw on the three-agency team that pitched to Nissan.

And don't get me wrong. I congratulate Dieste. Some of my favorite creatives work at Dieste. I'm thrilled for their team because I know what it is to work hard and win. At the same time, I feel the pain of the Vidal team and of True, too. Some of my favorite U.S. Hispanic marketing professionals work at the Vidal Partnership. And yes, there are people I care about at True. I also know what it is to do a great job and help a client succeed for a number of years, only to have the day come when that relationship comes to an end because of politics, perceptions or just 'cause. The impact is felt at the agency level, no doubt. But handling an account takes a village. So the loss of an account of this magnitude has a direct impact on an entire community of people with talents that include production, voice-over, talent payment, artists, printers, media reps and a host of other interrelated parts of the advertising puzzle. While the client does not replace these members of the team directly, the fact is that the incumbent agency and the new agency don't tend to use the same talent and supplier pool (which, by the way, may or may not affect the minority-owned business supplier network beyond the agency itself).

Then there are those eager and earnest review participants who wind up being the most victimized in this equation. Agencies such as Lopez Negrete (an agency one has to respect for its resilience, ganas and cojones.) Independent agencies that, such as the incumbent, Vidal, are privately owned and, therefore, making daily business decisions that have a truly personal impact. Business decisions about how to spend hard-earned resources. Business decisions about what constitutes a valid new-business opportunity. They are ready to invest. Ready to take risks. After all, that is how they have grown their businesses year after year. As independent agency owners, they are entrepreneurial, innovative, risk takers. They are not naive, but they do have to put some trust in the information being provided to them by the clients and the search firms.

They also believe in themselves and in their teams, and they have no doubt that they can compete head-to-head with the best of them. The client owes them nothing. The search firm owes them nothing. Or perhaps they do owe the agencies one thing -- transparency and clarity about the rules of the game so agencies can judge for themselves if the playing field is level and if the fight is worth fighting, the investment worth spending. I know business is business, but for goodness sake, can we at least create a competitive reality that operates with dignity and treats people with respect.

Like I said, I don't know who knew what when. In my desire to write an informed blog on this issue, I googled Multicultural and Nissan to see what was already out there on the subject. One of the first headlines I arrived at was "Multicultural: Nissan Blasted for Urban Pick; True Choice Draws Wrath of Rivals." And then it went on to mention Al Sharpton. True? Al Sharpton? I felt myself being sucked into a time machine. It all started coming back to me. In 2002, True won the Nissan business before it was ever minority certified. It partnered on that pitch with Omnicom incumbent Chiat/Day. In fact, if you go back even further, to about 1993, you'll find a press clipping with my name and the agency I co-founded winning the $7 million Hispanic Nissan business as a result of a strategic alliance with Chiat/Day. (The reality was they didn't spend more than about $3 million on the Hispanic business that year and all of the media buy went through Chiat.)

The point? There is a history of manipulative maneuvering in the pursuit and awarding of the Nissan business. There is a history of ambiguity when it comes to the definition of minority ownership as a prerequisite to account acquisition. We've seen this movie before. We know how it ends. Is anyone really surprised? What does this say about the client, the search firm, the industry, individuals and society? I have my thoughts, some of which are conflicting. I'm sure many of you have yours. Care to share?

Dieste deserves to celebrate. Who knows? The Omnicom restructuring may even mean creating some real wealth and real traction for an Asian, Latino or African-American business person to own a piece of Madison Avenue in some meaningful way. Vidal deserves to wince, but they have had an incredibly successful track record when it comes to new-business wins, so they will look forward, not backward. The independent agencies deserve to be pissed off, knowing there's nothing they can do but count their losses and be even more wary the next time around. Sadly, I've already heard rumblings that pit Hispanic agencies against African-American agencies, with comments that question a Hispanic agency taking the lead agency role in a "multicultural" context and further criticism of the budget allocation that skews heavily Hispanic. Must we really go there too?

To sum it all up, I was going to quote Jimmy Carter and say, "Life is not fair" (with a very Southern accent). But then something startling happened. I googled the quote to see if it was indeed Mr. Carter who had said it and discovered, much to my amazement, that the phrase had just become headline news. Deja vu all over again. John McCain just joked that Barack Obama's poll numbers are rising, as the economy seems to sink, "because life isn't fair."

Which brings me back to Chris Rock, and his oft-repeated advice about hating the game, and why, during these topsy-turvy times, it helps to laugh, lest we cry.
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