I don't know Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato, but I sure admire her moxie. Unlike most agency 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.