by Max Brantley
A thanks to Roby Brock at Talk Business for a link to an interesting article in Fast Company magazine on Julie Roehm, the hotshot blonde ad woman who was brought in to rev up Wal-Mart marketing to bring Target-style glitz to the discounter. Instead, she abruptly departed not long after her hiring in what became a scandalous, acrimonious split.
She's trapped in Bentonville it turns out, anchored by an $850,000 house she can't sell in NWA's cratered real estate market. A taste of the update on her life:
It's been two-and-a-half years, and no matter how many plastic fuchsia flowers Roehm and her husband, Mike, jam into the grass by the pool, they still can't offload their $850,000 ball and chain. In 2006, after Wal-Mart fired Roehm at least in part for accepting a Nobu 57 sushi dinner from Draftfcb, the ad agency she'd recently awarded the retailer's $580 million account, she filed a $1.5 million breach of contract lawsuit against the House of Sam, prompting a litigious spiral of soap-operatic proportions: Wal-Mart countersued Roehm for having an affair with a subordinate. Roehm countersued CEO Scott for buying discounted yachts and a diamond ring from a Wal-Mart partner. And the partner sued Roehm for defamation. An image of Roehm's face slapped on a Wal-Mart ad went viral online ("If you come to Wal-Mart," the spoof read, "please don't fuck your coworkers... . Because our legal team will fuck you back for every penny you've got... . Guaranteed") and bloggers ordained her a "ho" and "slut." All of the parties involved eventually dropped their suits, but Roehm, once the face of innovative advertising for Ford and Chrysler, emerged as the Hester Prynne of Bentonville.
It's an interesting story, full of spice about Roehm and some of her past provocative ad campaigns (supermodels playing football in their panties for Dodge Durango) and an acerbic take on life in a Wal-Mart company town with her husband Mike.
They are used to spending low-key nights at home. Their friends in Bentonville (a dry county where, Roehm says, "the second question people ask you when they meet you is 'What church do you belong to?' And trust me, there's a wrong answer")
Wal-Mart's influence apparently isn't absolute in Arkansas. Roehm reportedly has landed some consulting work for Little Rock-based Acxiom. Here's some more on the Roehm's-eye view of Bentonville:
Wal-Mart has the power to make or break virtually any company in the world. Bentonville can do the same to people. ("Bentonville is to Wal-Mart what the Vatican is to the Catholics," explained one supplier at the Wal-Mart Welcome Center.) "Ninety percent of the people I know here work for Wal-Mart," explains another local. "For many people here, this was their first job out of school. They've never worked for another company, and they've made a lot of money in their stock options. But when you live in a town like this and you live in a house worth $1 million and you don't agree with the company, you don't just magically leave Wal-Mart. There aren't really any other companies to work for, and vendors aren't going to hire you because they don't want to piss Wal-Mart off. People hit self-preservation mode. Wal-Mart has you in every way, shape, or form."
The social behavior of the town, the local woman continues, is dictated by the retailer's employee guidelines, which prevent anyone from accepting so much as a breath mint from a supplier. (And employees know they're being watched: Wal-Mart reportedly has a stable of former FBI and CIA agents monitoring them.)