Editorial: There's a lesson in the BofA saga

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The fizzled relationship of Interpublic Group and Bank of America is a textbook case of how not to serve a client. This is a sad lesson on the bungling of a signature holding-company account and the danger of letting a single executive exert too much influence over a relationship where collaboration is imperative.

BofA hired Interpublic as "holding company of record" in October 2002 after a shootout against Omnicom Group. The victory, orchestrated by Interpublic Chief Marketing Officer Bruce Nelson, came two months after Interpublic's accounting problems became public. BofA gave Interpublic a much-needed vote of confidence: A financial-services giant (and one of its lenders) saw Interpublic as a solution, not a problem.

But there was a problem: Mr. Nelson and the bank's global marketing executive, Catherine Bessant, exerted near-absolute control, alienating agencies and bank business units. For a holding-company relationship to work, someone must be in charge at the client and at the ad firm. But control doesn't work when it constricts the flow of ideas. Mr. Nelson was gatekeeper, effectively limiting collaboration between agencies and BofA. Interpublic, by failing to cultivate a more collegial relationship, ultimately failed its client.

Warning signs were apparent. BofA in 2003 sought a consultant to review processes at the bank and ad firm, acknowledging it had begun the holding-company relationship without "experience with challenges (or opportunities) the bank would encounter." BofA is said to have complained about serious problems as early as January 2005. Mr. Nelson resigned in June. BofA formally began a holding-company review last month.

Interpublic is a long shot to save the account. The loss of BofA would raise more questions about just what value floundering Interpublic brings to agencies and clients. In April, Interpublic CEO Michael Roth told analysts: "Our success in integrating the efforts of 15 Interpublic companies for Bank of America is noteworthy." Failure to manage a high-profile relationship is more noteworthy.

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