Wal-Mart's $3 Million Man: Leslie Dach

How Former Democratic Strategist Is Helping to Redeem Retailer's Reputation

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Wal-mart's low prices save working families, on average, $2,300 a year, "which buys a lot of things -- and a whole bunch of freedom." So speaks the narrator in "Sam's Dream," a far-from-typical spot from the country's mightiest and most-maligned retailer.
Former Democratic Party political operative Leslie Dach is now Wal-Mart's exec VP-governmental relations and corporate affairs. | ALSO: Comment on this story in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Former Democratic Party political operative Leslie Dach is now Wal-Mart's exec VP-governmental relations and corporate affairs. | ALSO: Comment on this story in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

The political-style commercial from PR giant Edelman's Blue Worldwide also took a far-from-typical route to the airwaves: It was created without the input or approval of the company's marketing department, headed by Chief Marketing Officer John Fleming.

Two camps
Two distinct camps are forming inside the $317 billion retail colossus. One is the marketing machine aimed at moving the merchandise. The other is an increasingly powerful public-affairs division, headed by Exec VP-Governmental Relations and Corporate Affairs Leslie Dach, bent on redeeming the retailer's reputation.

A political player with ties to the Democratic Party that date back to the Michael Dukakis campaign, Mr. Dach, 52, joined Wal-Mart last summer and now is one of the top seven executives at the retailer. In overseeing one of the most ambitious corporate-image makeovers ever, he is among an elite group of the most influential PR executives in corporate America, joining the ranks of Ed Adler at Time Warner, Jon Iwata at IBM and Charlotte Otto at Procter & Gamble. He was a key player in two Wal-Mart initiatives that have gotten reams of publicity: the retailer's employee voter-registration drive and its move to price some generic drugs as low as $4.

Former associates shocked
Mr. Dach's transition, however, has shocked some who know him. "The only thing I can hope is he is doing it for the money, because the Leslie Dach I knew wouldn't be there," said Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean. "I don't begrudge him doing it, but let's not go and tell everyone you're going to change the world at Wal-Mart."

Well, there is a lot of money: Mr. Dach's stock options are worth $3 million if he sticks around for two years. But in an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Dach insisted he has a "fundamental belief that change and progress on the big challenges in society are going to come from business."

His relationship with Wal-Mart began after Edelman (where he led the Beltway office for 17 years, growing its revenue from $1 million to $30 million) won the Wal-Mart account in June 2005. He and Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott became fast friends.

'Go-to guy on policy'
"They clicked," said Richard Edelman, president-CEO. "He became more than a trusted adviser. He became a go-to guy on policy. He's one of the top seven guys in the company, and that's amazing on the face of it. It's not that usual in the PR business."

It's also not that usual a career path, going from adviser-communication for John Kerry's campaign in 2004 to the inner sanctum of a Democratic whipping boy. But as one party consultant who worked with Mr. Dach said: "He's not any different than many people in Washington, working to defeat George Bush one day and then the next day going to work for the [National Rifle Association]."

Still, Mr. Dach's move has given even some hard-core politicos pause. "Leslie is a committed Democrat," the consultant said. "I have to hope he sees something. He has a very tight-knit relationship with the CEO, and if he is seeing something, I'm inclined to believe it."

"This is not just someone who is going to come in and do an ad campaign talking about Wal-Mart's image," said Eric Dezenhall of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington crisis-communications firm. "He's also capable of going nose-to-nose with Wal-Mart's attackers."

And some of those attackers may now be insiders, given that the internal power base appears to be fracturing between marketing and public affairs. "They need to spend more time on the business" and less on corporate-image-making, a former insider said. "Wal-Mart is not a political machine. It's a retailer."

Mr. Dach dismisses any notion there's not full collaboration among Wal-Mart's operations, merchandising, marketing and communications departments.

"In today's communication world, the line between marketing and public relations is thin and nonexistent. Everyone should know the strategy. The ideas should be encouraged to come from anywhere, and the execution is a tactical decision."
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