Physician, Heal Thyself

'Calling Dr. Draft, Dr. Howard Draft'

By Published on .

Eric Webber Eric Webber
Recently, Advertising Age editor Jonah Bloom opined about the need for more collaboration between advertising and PR agencies in promoting brands. He's right. And you'd think that one place where that lesson would be appreciated, or at least understood the most, is within those communications companies. Especially in cases where their own brand reputation is at stake.

But if you think that, you'd be wrong. For a good (or is it a bad?) example of communications pros not practicing the sort of sound brand-building strategy that they preach, look back into the not-so-distant past to New York magazine and its take on the sad (and yet oh so delicious) tale of Wal-Mart and DraftFCB. ("Snakes in the Garden," February 12, 2007).

I had a pretty good seat as the early part of this drama unfolded. I worked for GSD&M until soon after they were eliminated from the Wal-Mart pitch, but I was long gone by the time the New York article appeared. And, yeah, I know what you're saying. "Enough about DraftFCB and Wal-Mart already. It's old news." But it isn't really. It's the ad-world equivalent of the Anna Nicole Smith story; it just keeps on giving.

Collateral damage
Not convinced? I draw your attention to recent headlines about DraftFCB losing two large accounts: Applebee's and John Deere.

I'm not saying that those two accounts were pulled from DraftFCB solely because of the article, but I'm suggesting that there is more than coincidence in the timing. Maybe those accounts were already on shaky ground, but the fallout from the Wal-Mart disaster and specifically the New York article greased the skids at the very least.

And I'm suggesting that this is a classic situation where strategic crisis communications was desperately needed (and likely suggested) and an otherwise smart, shrewd, accomplished communicator chose not to practice what he surely would have preached to clients, but decided instead to wing it. In other words, the ad guy didn't think he needed PR.

Here's a quote from the article: "Howard has kept quiet in the press; he felt muzzled. Lately, his career has been summed up by the Wal-Mart experience. To Howard, that's not fair."

He's right; that's not fair. So what did Howard do when he was ready to take the muzzle off, to set the record straight? He went to the wrong publication, that's what he did.

Our businesses -- advertising and PR -- are about telling the right story to the right audience at the right time. I think Howard went one-for-three. The time was right, but he missed opportunities for the other two.

Wrong place, wrong time
Why New York? Don't get me wrong; I like the magazine, In fact, I subscribe. But it can be a bit snarky. And the significant part of Howard's story -- the business side, is not exactly in the magazine's wheelhouse.

Even more crucial, he chose a publication (and reporter) who has no apparent need for a long-term relationship with Howard or his agency. For New York, this story was a one-off, and their obvious interest was in the juicier parts of the story.

In short, he needed to be talking to a reporter he knew, who had a better understanding of and appreciation for Howard's business and predicament, and a publication that was more relevant for the audience he needed to reach.

He didn't follow good PR practice, and so lost much of his ability to help shape the story at least in the direction he wanted. Instead, the story became something other than what Howard probably hoped it would.

I know a lot of people in the ad and PR businesses, and most of them read the New York piece. Okay, it's not a scientific survey, but then again, I'm no scientist. The majority of people I asked came away with the general impression that Howard Draft enjoys excess -- expensive cars, watches, cigars, dinners and new-business pitches.

Nudie pics
The one specific thing remembered most often? That Howard carries a nude picture of his French model girlfriend on his phone.

Mmmmm, nude French models.

I'm sorry; I get thrown off by that part every time. My point is: Is that really what Howard wants people to remember? The success that Howard and his agency have enjoyed, his unconventional route to the top rungs of the ad ladder -- they were part of the story, but definitely relegated to the back seat. The nude French model rode shotgun.

I'm not saying that he should have pretended to be something that he's not. But at a critical time for the company, his first thought needed to be "What do I most need my clients and prospects to read about me right now?"

And he needed a PR strategy to accomplish that. The takeaway from the story needed to be more about Howard Draft the businessman and the successes of Draft/FCB, and less about Howard Draft the, well, cad.

Perhaps he thought that people in Overland Park, Kansas (home of Applebee's) and Moline, Illinois (John Deere) might not even see the article. It looks like maybe they did.
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