By Rob Whittle
A few years ago, a staffer at my ad agency saw an article that proclaimed that the Today Contraceptive Sponge was making a comeback in the market. The Sponge was infamous for being taken off the market in a Seinfeld episode in which Elaine, hoarding a limited supply of Sponges, must decide which of her prospective lovers was “Spongeworthy.” We pitched the account, won the business and were soon deeply immersed in matters of female reproductivity.
The new Sponge owner mentioned to me that his PR guy, whom he loved, was leaving his old agency and was looking for a place to park himself and his accounts. I asked to speak to him and within a few days, found myself opening a New York office with five employees to service “Stephen’s” PR clients. The jewel in the crown was not the Sponge; rather, it was the Atkins Diet, one of the most popular and controversial diets ever. To be specific, the entity paying the bills was Atkins Food, purveyors of carb-free candy bars, ice cream, cookies, cakes and the like. Dr. Atkins’ immensely popular books on low-carb dieting provided the seed money for Atkins Foods.
As the ever-optimistic entrepreneur, my thought was, “What could possibly go wrong?”
The first sign of trouble was in the form of a lawsuit from Stephen’s previous employer. It seems that Stephen had a non-compete clause in his contract that he neglected to tell me about. After settling the case, profits from the New York branch of my agency were slow to materialize.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration was giving the Sponge fits. The new Sponge factory was not up to snuff and serious alterations were needed. We were busy publicizing the fact that the Sponge was coming back, and the Sponge people were busy not paying us for our efforts. This went on for a few months until I finally cut them off.
But we still had Atkins, and the fees were starting to become substantial. It seemed that everyone in the U.S. was on a low-carb diet. Eat all the steak, hamburger, sausage and cheese that you want. You will lose weight!
Halfway through our New York adventure, Dr. Atkins suddenly died. The official cause of death was his slipping on a patch of ice and cracking his head. That did not stop the worldwide press from gleefully speculating that he had actually died from a heart attack caused by his unconventional diet. Now, the Atkins folks needed our PR services more than ever. Stephen assured me that the good doctor’s demise would not affect our business.
In fact, given the worldwide popularity of the diet, Europe and other regions of the world began to take notice. So, Atkins decided to export both the diet and the food to England. The PR formula was simple: promote the diet and Dr. Atkins’ books, and food sales would follow. That formula had proved wildly successful in the U.S.; Dr. Atkins appeared on the cover of Newsweek and in virtually every major publication and TV network in the country.
So, in England, Atkins needed a PR agency. My agency is a member of a worldwide network of independent agencies, so I called my friend Anthony and asked him if he was interested in representing Atkins in the U.K. Business was slow for Anthony, so this appeared as a godsend. He proceeded to work 60 hours a week on their behalf, and, like the Sponge did with us, Atkins stayed busy not paying Anthony for his services. Excuses piled high as to why payments were not forthcoming.
Nonetheless, I had the bright idea of exporting the Atkins PR account to other members of our network in Germany, France, Italy and Spain, following Atkins’ own planned expansion. To set things up, I flew to London – with building a global empire on my mind, met with Anthony and representatives of Atkins and came away with a structure for European marketing of the Atkins diet.
I returned to Alexandria and was greeted by a registered, certified letter from Stephen giving me his resignation. I was angry beyond words. We had invested in a New York office, taken some business hits and now, just when it was starting to pay off, Stephen leaves! He explained to me, a little too smugly for my taste, that Atkins was taking PR in- house, and giving him a big raise and stock options, which made him set for life financially. Besides, he said, Atkins was offering a generous settlement to buy him out of his contract with me.
I sent a truck to New York to retrieve our office furniture, closed out the lease, which was expiring, and washed my hands of the Big Apple.
Five months later, Atkins Foods declared bankruptcy. Stephen was out on the street, and poor Anthony, too. Sometimes losing is better than winning. We got our money and didn’t have to worry about paying for an office we didn’t need. Such is the life of the entrepreneur.
The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”