A dicey proposition at best

I don't know Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato, but I sure admire her moxie. Unlike most agency Donna-Imperato executives who've just lost a significant piece of client business, Imperato told PR Week exactly what was on her mind (insert link).

So, instead of the typical, “We're very proud of our work and wish the client well,” Imperato let loose with both barrels after the Hilton HHonors guest-loyalty program put their 20-year relationship up for bid. Imperato said CW not only refused to participate (which makes sense since incumbents almost never win), but also threw in a few very pointed barbs at the erstwhile client.

According to PRWeek, Imperato alleged the strategic platform CW presented in a previous review is now the basis for the client's "Go Hilton. Stay Everywhere." global advertising campaign. She also said the agency switcheroo had been caused by “international management shakeups, a layoff of half the workforce and significant internal changes at Hilton.” Wow. Talk about airing dirty laundry.

A Hilton spokesman fought back. He said CW's sister agency Y&R had created the campaign and that it had already been in place when Imperato's team made its presentation. He also deflected Imperato's claim about downsizing, stating, “To say that we laid off half our employees is not accurate.”

PRWeek noted that, despite the HHonors awards program loss,  CW remains AOR for Hilton's Doubletree and Hampton brands.

I really admire Donna's chutzpah for calling out a misbehaving client. More agency leaders need to do so, so that media such as PRWeek get the message that all client-side executives aren't saints (as they're typically depicted in the publication's various cover stories).

That said, I'll bet Imperato's in a little bit of hot water within WPP, the holding company that owns CW and Y&R (along with 3,000 other agencies). In one fell swoop, she undermined her own firm's long-term opportunities with the two remaining Hilton brands while also shining an unwanted spotlight on Y&Rs work for the client (i.e. who really created the campaign? Y&R or CW?).

Holding companies do not like internecine warfare. And, as a WPP alum, I'm guessing this article is causing quite a bit of angst at the moment.

Donna's words were a dicey, if brave, proposition. I admire her transparency and wish her and CW the best in salvaging what must now be a very difficult client relationship.

12 thoughts on “A dicey proposition at best

  1. Steinbrenner’s record of winning can’t be questioned. Nor can his abuse of the people who worked for him, most notably, Billy Martin.

  2. I think Torre, as was the case with my freelancer story above, understood that part of his job was to be a lightning rod for others. Clearly, Torre kept his disagreements with Steinbrenner private, which probably helped their relationship immensely. Also, if Torre could be comfortable with that arrangement, he had to know that he was managing for a first-class organization when it comes to developing and acquiring talent. Say what you will about George as a person, he was totally committed to winning. If you could put aside or compartmentalize the pettiness, it’s quite the winning atmosphere.

  3. Yes, I did see that. Torre’s always been a class act, so it’s no surprise that he managed the ‘crisis’ so adeptly. Speaking of Torre, I still don’t understand how he worked for Steinbrenner all those years. Nor could I understand the outpouring of grief when Steinbrenner died. He was one of the genuinely bad human beings.

  4. Regarding Imperato and Lincoln, did you see what Joe Torre did a few weeks ago when he had inadvertently undermined Jerry Manuel by answering a question about his own possible interest in the Met managing job next year? He publicly apologized and said he would no longer consider himself a candidate for the position, should it become available. What deft PR maneuvering, a beautiful, if not calculated demonstration, of how to defuse a situation by accepting blame, even when it wasn’t necessarily warranted. I would argue that his handling of that made him more attractive to the Mets than before it happened.

  5. On a different note, RepMan, it’s time to dissect the Wilpon press conference today, in which the father-and-son tag team simultaneously asserted that all the responsibility was theirs but that they never meddle in the day-to-day baseball operations. It was great theater if you’re both a PR practitioner and a fan of trite statements and vague answers. If you’re a fan of the Mets, it’s meet the new boss — same as the old boss.

  6. Great story, Ghost. I definitely feel your pain. You did the right thing. When I reflect on Donna’s decision to go public, I think about Abraham Lincoln’s strategy whenever he was upset: whether it was an under performing general, an outspoken opponent or someone who just said something that irked him, Lincoln would write down an immediate response and then put it in his desk drawer. The next day, he’d re-read the letter. Nine times out of 10 he’d rip it up.

  7. While it certainly feels good to air comments like that publicly, what, exactly, did it buy Imperato? I doubt her stated grievances are going to dissuade other agencies from pitching the Hilton HHonors business, but, worse, consider the impact they might have on other would-be clients for her agency: Is ABC Widget going to be motivated to hire her, knowing that at the dissolution of the working relationship (they do end) she’s likely to badmouth them publicly?
    I had something of a similar situation years ago as a freelancer. My agency contact had given me an assignment and had signed off on it every step of the way — until his supervisor hated it. At which time, he joined the chorus of the supervisor in questioning my competency and overall commitment. My heart told me to contact the supervisor and indict the agency contact by virtue of a voluminous paper trail indicating that he was right on board with what I was doing. My head, on the other hand, told me to quietly let it go, as part of your job in a client relationship is being an occasional fall guy. Indeed, I might have scored some points with the supervisor but I would have irretrievably lost the agency contact. I at least hold out the hope that this agency contact might hire me again someday, if nothing more than because I’ve proven myself willing to take a hit for him.

  8. Thanks so much for the post, Ronn. Sorry to read how badly the new CMO treated you but I’m not surprised. There’s a level of client/prospective client abuse that I’ve not seen before. I’m sure Donna Imperatore’s remarks were just a reaction to what was probably a pattern of abuse from the HHonors client.

  9. Totally agree, Eddie. That said, I find blogging about the more egregious erstwhile client behavior (without naming names) accomplishes the same goal without naming names and damaging future relationships. My blogs in the aftermath of a particularly abusive client firing prompted one of the individuals involved to call and say, ‘I get it, Steve. We didn’t handle it well. I apologize. Now, can you lay off?’ Completely sated by this admission of guilt, I did stand down (for awhile anyway). But, this particular organization’s poor behavior was so voluminous that it’s provided tidbits for multiple blogs over the years.

  10. Brave thing to do and very tempting at times, but ultimately not much to be gained by the agency in doing this. One of those things where a dignified withdrawal is always the best bet, at least in public!

  11. Steve: Interesting post, but risky move for Donna. Am cheering from the sidelines, but not something we’d do (even though I’d often love to.) We recently lost a 5 year major client after the new CMO didnt return our calls for 3 months, and had us prepare a 6 month, 100 page powerpoint that we fedexed to 3 of his different homes, none of which he signed for.