Perhaps the hardest thing for Wells BDDP to grasp about Procter & Gamble's swift dismissal last week may be this: How could a shop go from having $125 million of P&G business and $100 million of Bristol-Myers Squibb billings on its roster to having zilch from either today?
Forget the weirdness at Wells, which has been the norm for the place since BDDP bought it in 1990 and has been moving at warp speed since December. Then Wells BDDP New York president Paula Forman walked out, to the chagrin of P&G and those at the agency who worked on the business.
Other key managers soon fled, including Douglas Atkin, followed by the P&G team, Keith Bunnell, Beverly Okada and State Lawrence, who quit en masse on Tuesday.
Within 24 hours, P&G fired Wells BDDP, citing "the loss of key people" on its business, while GGT had to fess up when it released half-year results to London investors.
When an agency takes a hit like that, its staffers deserve sympathy. Certainly, some casualties will be picked up by other shops; others are protected by contracts. Insiders say there are about 100 people at Wells without that luxury. GGT Group chief executive Mike Greenlees says he remains committed to New York, as does Wells chief executive Frank Assumma. The wound, promises Greenless, won't be fatal to the GGT Group, either.
Still, a decision was made by Wells' management last summer to resign BMS' Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo because it would conflict with some P&G brands. Though Wells insiders say BMS was the agency's fastest growing account, they add that P&G was more profitable.
Despite the fact that P&G has been aligning its business among four global agencies - Wells not included - Wells' management opted for that client over BMS. The agency's creative director, Linda Kaplan Thaler, soon left. BMS began reassigning its accounts from Wells. Kaplan Thaler now has a start-up with BMS as her biggest client, thank you very much.
Wells BDDP was not clumsy in all dealings with P&G. Its decision to let its P&G cable and sports buying people pitch with TeleVest for the billion-dollar TV buying consolidation was smart, ensuring continuity when The MacManus Group unit won the review. And by all accounts, the client liked Wells' work on Pringles, Gain and Oil of Olay.
But when an agency chooses P&G over BMS, and P&G becomes between one-third and one-half of your billings, how can management allow the relationship to deteriorate to the point where P&G, a tough but patient client, fires you? Neither Greenlees nor Assumma chose to answer that question last week. Clearly, giving Wells BDDP only 30 days notice brought the point home.
In essence, someone misread P&G's commitment to the men and women working on its brands or how to keep those people happy. Clients work with people. Those people happen to work at agencies. Forgetting that can be fatal.
A final note: Last week's column should have mentioned that Under the Radar: Talking to Today's Cynical Consumer was published by Adweek Books.