Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Adventures In Advertising: The Client Who Caused His Agency To Quit The Pitch They Had Won

Barneys was once a powerhouse advertiser.  Most creative agencies wanted the account because the work could be spectacular.   During the seventies and eighties and until the Madison Avenue store opened in the early 1990’s, Barneys ran wonderful, compelling television advertising in order to get both men and women to shop at its flagship store, which was located at Seventh Avenue and 17th Street. In those days, that Chelsea location is not what it is today and people had to be convinced to go there to shop.  

As a result, much of the work that ran was award-winning work. At the time, most agencies, including mine at that time, would have done anything to get into the pitch because the work that was produced was so good. However, few agencies kept the business more than a couple of years because the account was so demanding.

The reason the work was so good and the agency tenure was so short was Barney's Advertising and Marketing Director, Milton Guttenplan. Mr. Guttenplan was a fabulous advertising executive, but at the same time he drove his ad agencies crazy.  No detail was too small for him to double-check; he was infamous for calling photographers and TV directors to double check their pricing and to get their opinion of the agencies that hired them.  After a shoot, he would question them at length about their recent experience with his agency on his business; he rarely went on shoots unless they were in exotic locations. Despite being difficult, He had great taste and encouraged his agencies to do great work.  And indeed, agencies were able to do award-winning work on the account.  Barneys advertising won multiple Clio’s, Andy's as well as every other advertising award.  But in the process of doing such good work, Mr. Guttenplan was difficult to tolerate. 
A good example of his difficulty is what happened to me and my agency during our pitch for the account.  At the time of this story, I was a Senior Vice President at McCaffrey & McCall.  We were pitching the account and had made it down to the finals against other very good agencies.  We didn’t have it yet, but one morning as we approached the decision, my home phone rang at two in the morning.  It was Milton asking me to come to his office at 8:30 the next morning, to discuss an idea he had.  This was a little unusual during a pitch.  He thought nothing of the hour and did not apologize; it was the way he did business. Right then and there I realized that, despite the good work, I did not want to work on the account.

The meeting in his office was totally unnecessary and could easily have been a phone call.  When I got back to the agency I told David McCall about the phone call and meeting.  David was an amazing leader.  He called Fred Pressman, then the owner of Barneys, who was the source of our pitch and David’s friend.  Fred agreed with David that it was poor form to call someone at that hour, but told David that Milton was a trusted employee who had carte blanche to run his department.  Fred made it clear that we would have to find a way to deal with Mr. Guttenplan; it was a hint that we were close to winning the account.

I told David I would do the pitch, but I didn’t want to work on the business.  

Meanwhile, before we finished the pitch, we actually made at least one significant contribution to the retailer.  Barneys was a huge, complicated store which, as I recall, ran most if not all of its block.  It had multiple floors with tens of thousands of men’s suits. There were literally dozens of departments and shops within the store, each dedicated to a style or designer. It was very difficult to know where to shop; there was no other store in the city with that kind of selection. I was working with a creative director, Royal Bruce Montgomery.  We were in the store one day trying to figure it out.  Bruce took out a pad and as we walked the isles, he sketched the entire store; it was a map that showed what was in every nook and corner. A few days later, we presented it to Milton. The map was to be a hand-out, available as customers entered the store and it simplified the shopping experience. The map was actually used, in one form or another, until the store closed many years later and Barneys moved to Madison Avenue.

However, once the map was presented, the client, as was his habit, insisted on calling Bruce with questions and comments;  he bypassed me.  Bruce, too, went to David McCall and told him that he did not want to work on the account.  It turns out that Mr. Guttenplan even called the type man, Marty Solomon, to see if he felt that Bruce was doing a good job and to double-check the prices in our estimate. (In those days, before computers, type was sold by intermediaries.) As a result of selling and producing the store map, we knew we would win the business.

Like Bruce and I, almost everyone who had anything to do with the pitch was not enthusiastic about working on the account.  When David heard that few people wanted to work on the business, he called Fred Pressman and told him we would pass.  That is the kind of leader he was.

Those were the days when almost all agencies were independent and could do things like that.  It garnered respect from clients and great enthusiasm for the agency among employees.   In this case it gave us all great relief, despite the fact that we would not be doing the really good work that we could have done on the account.  

I guess the point of the story is that it is better to quit while you are ahead.  The agency that eventually won the account kept it only a short time before either resigning it or being fired.


  1. Great story Paul. Now that the agency category is mature with too many competitors, little thought is given to the liability created by the nature of the client and work. Such a shame.

  2. Ahh, yes...the days of "type houses" and photostat machines...I remember them well. Am I giving away my age? Anyway, thanks for sharing that "adventure," Paul. I truly miss the era "when almost all agencies were independent," took chances, and actually cared about the craft.

    1. How nicely put. Indeed, those were very good days in the business.

    2. How nicely put. Indeed, those were very good days in the business.

  3. Here’s an observation I’ve made after 40 years in the agency business … The more shit and abuse you take from a current client, the more you’ll get. And same thing in new biz. The more you swallow or bend over, the more (or less) you’ll get. And then the real and definitive question becomes … How do you feel about yourself when you get home? Proud or ashamed?

    1. Anon: If you are so unhappy, why are you still in the business or, if you have left the business, why did you stay in it?

    2. Still in the business and didn't say I was unhappy. Just thought I was adding to your point ... that sometimes it's better to walk away with dignity intact. Guess you missed my point.

  4. I remember Barneys well at that address. We had it for awhile at Epstein Raboy. They were a tough client for sure.


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