The client from hell

Every agency has had its fair share of truly horrific clients. 

You know the ones I mean: the screamers, gropers, the ones who keep losing the invoice that’s already 180-days old.

And then there are those who poach your talent but never ask permission or compensate you for the loss (despite contractural wording to the contrary).

My two favorites were a retail chain that told us they were reallocating our money to expand their internal IT infrastructure, and an industry group that replaced our budget to sponsor a rock group’s tour (FYI: Our program for the concert lovers has been named a finalist for three separate major awards).

But I digress.

I have to say that after reading John Carreyrou’s spellbinding book about Theranos and founder Elizabeth Holmes, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up,” I am equal parts empathetic and appalled by the actions of the lead Theranos agencies: Chiat/Day and DKC, respectively.

The legendary Chiat/Day was contacted directly by Holmes because they had represented Steve Jobs and Apple (and to say that Holmes was positively obsessed with all things Jobs-related is to say that Donald Trump occasionally compliments dictators).

Holmes hired Chiat on the spot and did her very best to lure the legendary Lee Clow (the creative genius behind Apple’s iconic 1984 campaign) out of retirement). Clow wisely demurred, but Holmes nonetheless insisted on following the exact same schedule Jobs had put in place with her Chiat team up to, and including, weekly Wednesday afternoon meetings.

Holmes retained the public relations firm DKC just prior to the oft-delayed launch of the Theranos website (whose bold claims had to be constantly dialed back as the white-hot corporation’s lawyers came to realize the start-up’s promise to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier was a complete ruse).

Indeed it’s not a stretch to say that Holmes is easily the most diabolical and disingenuous liar this side of Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozkowski and Bernie Madoff.

I’m not an ad agency expert, so I can’t address why so many super smart Chiat/Day account team members didn’t smell a rat sooner than they did. But I MUST address the behavior of DKC and their lead account manager, Matthew Traub, as described by WSJ reporter Carreyou in his spellbinding book.

DKC had been successful in pulling the wool over fawning reporters from such mainstream publications as Fortune, Forbes, CNBC and others. But the Carreyrou was a different breed entirely. Various Theranos insiders had confided in the investigative reporter, and he was asking questions that Holmes, her pit bull-like law firm and DKC assiduously avoided.

Traub asked Carryrou to submit a list of questions, which the latter did. Carryrou also asked for an in-person meeting with Holmes at their posh, Fort Knox-like Silicon Valley headquarters.

Traub said Elizabeth’s schedule wouldn’t permit an in-person meeting, and provided brief, legal-approved responses to Carryrou’s questions.

At the same time, DKC was perfectly content to keep disseminating feel good press releases about Theranos and arranging countless other interviews. But not with Carryrou. They knew that he knew what was going on, Carryou writes.

I urge any advertising or PR professional, academic or student to read the book for further details because the various documentaries omit the Theranos/agency relationships.

Afterword: I must admit to feeling some empathy for Traub and DKC because they (and every PR firm) depend upon clients to tell the truth. But after reading this book, I’m convinced there were countless warnings that DKC (and Chiat/Day, for that matter) should have spotted and resigned the business ASAP.

It’s easy to look the other way, especially when an incredibly well-funded start-up is tossing hundreds of thousands of dollars your way.

But when does an agency say, “Enough is enough?” Because DKC didn’t until it was too late, they now find themselves forever painted as having played a small, but critical, role in perpetrating a complete hoax.

Final question: How did the PR trades miss this one?

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