By Robert L. Whittle
President & CEO
During the peak of The Atkins Diet craze (and, yes, it was a craze), Williams Whittle handled the PR for Dr. Atkins and his organization. How we came to get that account and how we lost it is an interesting story.
We were pursuing the Today Contraceptive Sponge business. Yes, the same Sponge made famous by Elaine on Seinfeld. Turns out there was a new Sponge sheriff in town; a group of investors bought the rights to the Sponge out of bankruptcy, and it was getting major play in the women’s magazines. We had an account supervisor who’d handled the account the first time around, so we called, got a meeting in New York, and soon were working on the business.
The client had made it clear that we would only be doing the advertising because he was enamored of his PR guy, Richard. He let me know that Richard was unhappy with the big PR firm he was with and was looking to make a move, either to Big Agency A or Big Agency B. Just to fill a silence, I said, “Why don’t you let me talk to Richard.”
In less than sixty days, we had a Williams Whittle office in Manhattan with The Atkins Diet and the Today Contraceptive Sponge as our first PR clients, and Richard heading up a team of four. I have to admit it was fun to talk about our New York office and our two famous clients.
This was at the time that the Atkins craziness took off, and it took off worldwide. Dr. Atkins and his diet were known the world over, scoring national magazine covers, network news time and major newspaper profiles both here and abroad. His books were #1 bestsellers, but the funding for our ever-growing PR fees came not from the books, but from the food division, Atkins Nutritionals. Candy bars, bread, chips, even ice cream.
Meanwhile, our New York office was becoming almost solely dependent on the Atkins account.
Then came the move that would change everything. The Atkins people asked for our help in expanding to the UK and into the rest of Europe. I took the lead on this as I personally knew the heads of all of our ICOM agency network partners in London and throughout Europe. I introduced Atkins to my friend Anthony, and soon the account was consuming his London-based agency.
I remember going out and buying a map of Europe in anticipation of introducing the account into Germany, France and Italy. I flew to London to meet with Anthony about spreading the wealth into Europe. When I returned, I found a certified, registered letter addressed to me from our New York office. “Uh oh, this can’t be good,” I thought.
And it wasn’t. But then again, it was. Let me explain. It was Richard’s resignation letter. It seems that Atkins had offered him a position on staff and would not be requiring WW’s services any longer. They offered to buy his contract out for a fairly hefty sum, which was the only saving grace.
Since our lease was up the following month, I sent a truck to New York to pick up the furniture and to shutter the office. The staff was on their own, although Richard was confident he could get them jobs at Atkins. Richard assured me that with his stock options he was set for life financially. Bully for him.
In four months’ time, Atkins Nutritionals declared bankruptcy. Richard was out of a job. Poor Anthony was left holding hundreds of thousands of dollars in receivables. Fortunately, we hadn’t had time to export the account to the rest of Europe, so they were safe.
And Williams Whittle? We dodged a big carbo-loaded bullet.