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Drama In The House Of Dell

Just over a year ago Dell loudly proclaimed it was going to turn the advertising industry on it’s head by creating the new client-agency model. The high-stakes battle for the account meant that Dell would drop its current roster of 800 agencies around the globe, dumping its entire $4.5 billion media spend into one of the behemoth holding companies.

Just over a year ago Dell loudly proclaimed it was going to turn the advertising industry on it’s head by creating the new client-agency model. The high-stakes battle for the account meant that Dell would drop its current roster of 800 agencies around the globe, dumping its entire $4.5 billion media spend into one of the behemoth holding companies. In an unusual move, instead of asking the competing agencies to pitch creative campaign ideas,  Dell had the holding companies pitch actual business models for a singular Dell marketing machine. 

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After a grueling 7-month high profile battle, WPP finally won the Dell business. The pitch: a new agency, dubbed Project DaVinci, would be an agency of the future built from the ground up staffed with 1,000 people from around the world. WPP had 90 days to create it; the doors of Da Vinci would open in March 2008.

Things haven’t gone exactly as planned. In fact pretty much everything that could go wrong, has. Despite the drop-dead March arrival date, rumblings of Project DaVinci’s real name didn’t even emerge until two months after the deadline. In May, Advertising Age reported that “Synarchy”–Greek for “joint rule”–would be the shop’s official name. Evidently WPP/Dell didn’t do their research: the blogosphere soon enough skewered them for using a word that also referred to Nazi Germany. The WPP/Dell team quickly reverted to the more innocuous “Enfatico,” which means “to play with emphasis.” However, after the hyped shop’s painstakingly slow ramp-up, a spoof site called “Enfartico” soon appeared (listing “Dull” as its client). By August, still without a single piece of work emerging from the agency, word spread that Michael Dell was furious when he visited his new shop to find desks ordained with Macs instead of Dells. It didn’t take long for the agency of the future to become the industry punching bag of the present.

Over the last couple of months, things have only continued to downward spiral. Dell is cutting back both expenses and staff–its stock price is down 50% from the beginning of the year–while WPP has enacted a hiring freeze. Then in November, Casey Jones, Dell’s rock star global VP of marketing who birthed the Project DaVinci idea, suddenly stepped down. (According to AgencySpy.com, “Jones had been put on ‘probation’ shortly before his departure after failing to convince higher-ups that his plan was going well – a report that Dell continues to deny.”). Then on Tuesday, Mark Jarvis, the PC-maker’s CMO and the other master of the Enfatico plan, abruptly announced he’s leaving the company after only a year. Advertising Age reported a Dell spokesman’s response to the shake-up: “there is no impact to Enfatico as a result of this announcement.” Right.

I’m always astounded by ad agencies–whose sole purpose is image creation and management–that do the most embarrasing job managing their own images. But the larger question is whether the Enfatico debacle is just another case of the plague of the super-sized CMO? Big personalities who are more interested in building splashy overnight legacies than doing the unsexy gritty work? Or is Enfatico genuinely an innovative idea shaking up the traditional client-agency model that just hasn’t figured itself out yet? My sense is that it’s the former.

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About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton

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