Monday, February 19, 2007

Essay 1732



Q&A: Alex López Negrete

By NANCY AYALA/Marketing y Medios

Houston-based López Negrete Communications had a momentous start to 2007. Despite weeks of delays, the incumbent for the Wal-Mart Stores Hispanic account kept the $50 million business. “It’s the first time there’s been a review [in 11 years],” Alex López Negrete, president and CEO, said. “Keep in mind that a client like this gets agency kits 24/7.” Needless to say, he added, “we’re very happy to see how it ended up.” With a client roster that includes Bank of America, Visa, Domino’s and new clients ConAgra Foods and Novartis, he has reason to be so.

Q: With so much attention on the general-market Wal-Mart account, it seemed Hispanic was getting overlooked. Was that the case?

A: If I had anything to say, I couldn’t say it. But I really had nothing to say. [Wal-Mart] was nothing but professional in the process. You’ve got the biggest retailer in mankind’s history having an agency review. That can’t be easy. I’m glad they took their time, and they made decisions they feel good about. I never felt shortchanged by anybody in the process, by [search consultancy] SRI, by Julie [Roehm, Wal-Mart’s fired svp of communications], by anybody.

After the review, what are you focusing on?

The focus is transition and integration to make sure we’re all up to speed and that we deliver to the [Hispanic] customer. Not only did we compete for this large piece of business, but we had a lot of work to do. We had a roll-back campaign, we had the Latin Grammys, we had the big RBD initiative. We had holiday. (He gives a relieved laugh.) It was as busy a year as we’ve ever had for Wal-Mart.

How did you go about connecting Wal-Mart to hot pop band and Univision TV stars RBD?

Hispanic agencies, historically, have been better at doing branded entertainment, integrated marketing and all this kind of stuff that is so buzzy right now in the general market. You look at the RBD concert that we had here in Houston, that we filmed and then we broadcast on Univision—that was not an event that we decided to sponsor—we created that event: Wal-Mart, López Negrete, Anderson Merchandisers and [record label] EMI Televisa. We sat at a table and said, “Wow, how do we do this?” In the Hispanic space, we’re ahead of the curve. I don’t think we’ve been given credit. I think that that’s what 2007 will bring more of, not just for retail, but category after category.

Are all your clients angling to go this route?

I wouldn’t doubt it. The thing is about all clients, or at least all of my clients, we’re all interested in things that we can own and build around as opposed to just sponsoring. All clients want more ROI, and they want to be associated with properties that are memorable and meaningful to the audience, whether it’s Hispanics or Smurfs. Take a look at who’s committed. [For] Wal-Mart, we built a whole initiative around the World Cup. Why Wal-Mart? Well, what are you going to watch it on? HDTV, which I got for sale real cheap [at Wal-Mart]. Where are you going to buy your jerseys? Wal-Mart. Where are you going to buy the snacks, the beer and the chips and the salsa for your World Cup viewing party? Wal-Mart. [We] built these great merchandising opportunities around the World Cup that are very unique.

How much does marketing play a part?

At the end of the day, I would rather you call me a Hispanic marketing agency than a Hispanic advertising agency because the responsibility this agency has is to connect its clients with Hispanic consumers. That’s my job. Along the way, do you produce ads? Yeah. Do you do promotions? Yes. Do you do interactive? Yes. But again, Wal-Mart, Visa, ConAgra, Novartis, any of my clients are not going to gauge me and do my review on, “Wow, you did cool ads.” We are in the era of ROI. My job is to demonstrate ROI.

Bank of America seems to be aggressively expanding nationwide.

That’s been a labor of love. When we came on the roster with them, they were spending a million bucks. Wal-Mart was spending a million and a half bucks 12 years ago. Part of our responsibility as an agency is to grow those accounts so that the Hispanic consumer can partake of them. It’s an interesting thing. I really see this higher calling for what we Hispanic agencies do that fuels [our] work. This business isn’t easy by any stretch. And so you have to have a reason to get up in the morning beyond just doing cool spots. … The nice thing about Bank of America for us is that it’s moved beyond the broadcast realm and the print realm. We’re handling a lot of direct response and a lot of direct marketing for them. The stuff you see in Spanish at a bank of America branch, that’s our work.

I feel like I should switch banks since I’m constantly being wooed with both English and Spanish fliers at home.

That’s right. That’s the idea. With Visa, right now we just completed the new campaign for them. You’re going to start seeing this on the air next week. We shot it in Argentina and Uruguay.

Will we see some new work soon for ConAgra?

One of the first brands that we’re working on is [for ConAgra’s] Act II popcorn. We’re beyond storyboard phase there. We’re testing the work now. It’s a great category, it’s a great client. They’re a very marketing-focused client. We’re very full-steam ahead on that one. Same thing with Chili’s. We’re at storyboard stage with them right now.

What stage are you at with Novartis?

Anybody who has a pharmaceutical client will tell you that it’s a highly regulated [business] that doesn’t move that quickly. It’s very big and you can’t really talk about certain treatments that are coming out. For us, it’s been a great learning experience. We’re learning about disease areas that they’re investing in. We’re not doing commercials right now. It’s more about getting integrated. I think this year will be a year of learning and putting their initiatives on the road, if you will.

Novartis selected your agency in December. Are you still looking for new business in ‘07?

Our commitment and our focus is always to deliver above and beyond to the clients that have given you the opportunity to add their name to your roster. It’s not a contest of who ends up with more new businesses. Are we looking for new business? There are some categories that we would very much like to pursue. We want clients that last with us. You take a look again at the number of years that we’ve had with Bank of America. We’re going into our 15th year. Visa brought us on at the end of ‘98, so we’re going on nine years with them. Wal-Mart again, we’re going onto our 12th year. You want those relationships to last because we invest a great deal in them, just like clients invest a great deal in you.

It sounds like you are just as committed to building a dependable staff that will stay with you at your Houston headquarters.

The creative I’m most proud of is careers and helping build people’s lives. When Javier [Gonzalez-Herba, vp/creative director] joined my agency, he was straight out of the University of St. Thomas and hadn’t had a job a day in his life. He’s been with me 21 years, and now he’s one of the preeminent directors in the space. Again, it’s about building careers. Jaime Belden started with me as a production artist, who is now creative director for my direct-marketing unit. He’s been with me for 12 years. When you see people grow within your organization, and have three kids, a house and cars, we made that possible together. That’s the cool creative. That’s what I’m in this thing for. Frederico [Traeger] joins our team under Javier’s leadership. To me, that’s a really great moment in my career. Federico and I went to high school together [in Mexico City]. He was creative chief at Bromley, at Bravo. Here’s a guy who is a very unique human being with a hell of a pedigree, and he chose us. We invited him to come in, and he said, “Yeah, this is a place I want to be.” Luis Gonzalez, one of my other creative directors, he was with me nine years and then he went off to general-market land for four or five years, and then he came back to us. So he’s been with me a collective of 11 years now. It’s really unique, I tell you. You look at Simon El Hage Lisha, who is my director of marketing services and business development, he’s going on eight years with me. Adalis Arroyo, who is my group account director on Wal-Mart, she’s with me now 12 or 13 years.

It’s great to be able to speak in decades [about clients and staff].

You know what’s cool about that? This is our 22nd year, but we’re still young. The energy is still there, and we still feel like the new kids on the block. We still feel like the underdog. I love that idea. You should never lose your underdog status, whether it’s real or not. It makes you appreciate your wins.

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