A hard day's night - Tales of a blackout: industry keeps cool

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Mark Goldstein and five of his colleagues from Fallon Worldwide were returning to Minneapolis from a meeting in New York with new client Subway Restaurants. The group had just made it through security at the White Plains airport when the power failed.

"Had we stopped for a cup of coffee, we would have been on the wrong side of the X-ray machine," the chief marketing officer of the Publicis Groupe agency said. "We were very lucky."

Mr. Goldstein's story is typical of the impact the "Blackout of 2003," so christened by the media, had on the advertising, marketing and media industries, which are largely centered in New York. The city was virtually crippled by the nation's largest-ever power outage, which lasted for some 24 hours over Aug. 14 and 15. Many reacted to the crisis with calm, relying on luck, creativity and backup plans to get their jobs done. Those without crucial deadlines tried to make the most of an unexpectedly long summer weekend.

gone fishin'

Mr. Goldstein, in fact, was interviewed over his cellphone Aug. 15, as he returned to the Minneapolis airport to pick up another client, Howard Handler, chief marketing officer of Virgin Mobile. Mr. Handler flew from Kansas City, Kan., to Minnesota for an early start to a canoeing trip after he was unable to return to New York.

"We got stranded in Kansas City after a board meeting so I just tried to get creative in getting back to New York," said Mr. Handler. "Our office is a little outside of New Jersey so everything was pretty much up, but if you were in Manhattan or the outer boroughs, you were screwed."

Jeff Tarakajian, president of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, New York, could attest to that. Mr. Tarakajian, was in a 12th-floor conference room reviewing a Coca-Cola Co. presentation when the lights went out. "I'm amazed the cellphones have worked today," he said when reached Aug. 15 on his mobile. "I have an AT&T, a Nextel and a T-Mobile phone, none of which worked [Aug. 14]. But AT&T worked twice today."

time on their side

Timing was on the side of a team from WPP Group's Y&R, Chicago, shooting spots for Sears, Roebuck & Co. for five days in New York before leaving Aug. 14 for a location in Connecticut. "Our biggest challenge was getting talent out of Manhattan to get on the set," said Matt Bijarchi, director-broadcast production for the agency. "We had to order a few extra shots because talent couldn't get out." Despite no power at the Connecticut location, the team was able to work because they carried their own electrical backup. "Thank God for generators," he said, noting the ingenuity of director Albert Watson of Cyclops Productions. "We have not missed a shot."

Alan Kalter, chairman-CEO of Doner, was one of many company chiefs who officially closed their offices Aug. 15 in affected areas, in this case Detroit and Cleveland. "It's too dangerous inside," Mr. Kalter said of the Detroit building, which lacked power and water.

Undeterred, about 100 members of his Detroit staff spent Aug. 15 working outdoors in the rain on covered laptops, continuing preparations for the agency's Six Flags presentation this week. "We survived a fire, we can survive a little electrical problem," said Mr. Kalter.

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, and the party later moved to the TriBeCa apartment of Executive Creative Director Todd Waterbury.

Berlin Cameron/Red Cell Chairman Andy Berlin was one of a group of people who helped rescue an agency account executive and three Clear Channel employees from an elevator. Mr. Berlin was on a conference call with his Nestle Purina client when the lights went out. He used the blackout as an opportunity to plug his clients: "We have a lot of Dasani water and Coca-Cola at the agency, which turned out to be really important." Mr. Berlin, like thousands of others, got out of the city on foot that night, crossing the 59th Street Bridge.

ripple effect

Even agencies far from the East Coat felt the impact. A spokesman for Omnicom Group's GSD&M in Austin, Texas, said a half dozen staffers were stranded in Detroit, where they were conducting focus groups. They took a taxi to Grand Rapids, Mich., 150 miles away to catch a flight home.

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 shop. He said the agency produced an ad and delivered it to the New York Daily News for a special section on the blackout published Aug. 15.

"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 that day for a meeting with Tyco Industries but was on a plane when the power went out. "Everything continued to move and people either had hotel rooms or stayed with friends," he said.

Doner's Mr. Kalter contributed a crisis motto that underscores the ad industry's perpetual optimism: "You've gotta smile through it all."

contributing: alice z. cuneo

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