by Kyle Massey on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 12:00 am 7 min read
Gary Heathcott, a consultant to CJRW since early 2015, has been taken off two state accounts, according to the ad firm and the state.
Little Rock marketing agency CJRW has removed Gary Heathcott from the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery account, the agency says, less than three years after acquiring his services and his list of clients in a much-ballyhooed deal.
The decision appears to be only one step the agency is pursuing to distance itself from the veteran advertising man after complaints about Heathcott’s disturbing and unprofessional comments around clients and co-workers.
Current and former employees at the agency tell Arkansas Business that CJRW is now looking to end its consulting contract with the politically connected ad man, who also helped land a major contract with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
Darin Gray, CJRW’s chief executive, confirmed last week that he had taken Heathcott off the Lottery account. Gray became CEO in July 2015, six months after CJRW bought Heathcott Associates’ client list and hired its former employees.
Gray referred to that decision in an Oct. 30 email to Donna Bragg, the lottery’s advertising and marketing director, who was the target of name-calling by Heathcott in a September meeting, according to multiple sources.
“This account has not been managed the way CJRW operates from the beginning,” Gray wrote in the email, which was obtained by Arkansas Business through a Freedom of Information Act request to the state agency. “With this said, I took the initiative to remove Mr. Heathcott from the account so we could get this account back on track.”
The email focused on missed deadlines and other issues with the Lottery account, but in a telephone interview Bragg did not deny reports of an outburst by Heathcott, instead referring all questions to CJRW.
Taken Off AEDC Account
The advertising firm has banished Heathcott from its Main Street offices and instructed him not to contact clients at the Lottery and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, CJRW employees say. Heathcott declined to comment on the record about any change in his status at CJRW.
Brandi Hinkle, director of communications at AEDC, confirmed by email that Heathcott is no longer handling that state agency’s account, worth $950,000 a year. Ad industry insiders say the account is now being led by Mark Raines, CJRW’s vice president and director of public relations.
Gray would not comment on the AEDC account.
“I can say that Gary Heathcott has been pulled from the Lottery account,” Gray told Arkansas Business, “and that’s the right and responsibility of this firm as owner of those contracts, to make sure at all times that we have the right personnel working with them. And that includes different areas of expertise, approaches to account management, etc.”
The five-year, $34.5 million contract with the Lottery, signed this year after protests from rival ad firms were rejected, pays CJRW a 13 percent commission for media placement. Since media placement makes up 77 percent of the total, or $26.6 million, CJRW stands to reap $3.45 million over five years, Lottery Director Bishop Woosley said in January. Future years could yield larger budgets and thus bigger paydays for CJRW, according to the Lottery’s five-year business plan.
Heathcott’s deal to join forces with CJRW was front-page news in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and he played a major role in the competition for the Lottery and AEDC work. His exile from CJRW’s offices stemmed not only from the alleged outburst at Bragg, but also from complaints about sexual remarks, jokes and belittling comments that disturbed both male and female employees, according to current and former colleagues who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Described as a lightning rod whose behavior had been “managed” in the past, Heathcott had spiraled into a pattern of worsening behavior in recent months, CJRW colleagues said, adding that clients felt bullied and several colleagues came to feel harassed.
Gray declined to comment on Heathcott’s behavior, but he sought to “clarify the arrangement we’ve had with Gary up till now.”
In January 2015, CJRW “bought his client list; we did not buy his company,” Gray said. “As a result of that we brought his employees on as full CJRW employees. Gary has never been, nor will he ever be, an employee of this company.”
Heathcott, who did media-buying for Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s 2014 campaign, has two agreements with CJRW, Gray said: the client list purchase to be paid out over four years and a separate consulting contract, the length of which Gray wouldn’t specify. “Those were two totally separate agreements, not dependent on each other. On the current agreement, he is a paid consultant.”
The consulting deal was based on the idea that Heathcott would bring in new business and then hand it off to CJRW employees who would handle the accounts, CJRW veterans said; instead, he insisted on servicing some accounts and exaggerated his role at the firm.
“He would tell people that he ran the place and that Darin didn’t know anything about advertising,” one former CJRW employee said, adding that Heathcott liked to drop the governor’s name.
In text messages with a reporter on Oct. 26, Heathcott ignored a question about his status at CJRW but called persistent industry talk about his situation the work of “haters” who are “trying to stir up things for others when they’d be better served taking care of their own business.” In follow-up phone conversations Wednesday and Thursday, Heathcott said he could not speak on the record.
In Gray’s Oct. 30 email to the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, he said he was following up after Bragg had “communicated to ASL’s internal group” that her “trust level in our ability to hit a deadline has hit rock bottom.”
After disclosing that he had removed Heathcott from the account, Gray’s email described meeting with CJRW team members and representatives of its digital subcontractor on the account, Miles Partnership of Sarasota, Florida, and asking for “a chance to jump in and correct this account going forward.”
“Once all the right people were in the room,” Gray wrote, the group determined that a planned launch of an upgraded Lottery website would be best put off until new branding could be incorporated.
“Let me commit to both you and [Lottery Director Woosley], CJRW and Miles Partnership is committed to turning this around and getting us all back on track for now and in the future,” Gray continued. “This account IS our top priority.” He suggested a meeting with Bragg, Woosley and Jay Salyers, a senior vice president with Miles Partnership, “to sit down with both of you and see how we got to where we are today and how that is going to be resolved, outlining deadlines, processes and procedures to bring us up to speed and to set hard deadlines between now and the new launch date.”
Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Finance & Administration, which oversees the Lottery, gave Arkansas Business a statement: “The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery’s advertising/marketing contract is with CJRW. We maintain a great relationship with the agency and appreciate the work they do.”
Heathcott’s removal from the Lottery account was seen as a positive step within the advertising firm, according to two current CJRW employees.
In a text-message exchange shared anonymously with Arkansas Business, a CJRW worker and a former employee appeared to cheer Heathcott’s banishment, saying at least eight women at the firm had put their complaints against him into writing. The largest traditional homegrown ad agency in Little Rock, CJRW had 41 women on the staff page of its website last week.
“Boom, good riddance,” one of the messages says. “Way to go women,” the former employee replies.
The messages, which said CJRW had begun taking action against Heathcott “about a week before that Weinstein shit broke,” couldn’t be independently confirmed by Arkansas Business, but current and former employees said they accurately reflected many reactions within the firm.
Former and current CJRW employees confirmed that written complaints by female CJRW workers had been made, but no details were provided to Arkansas Business.
The reference to Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer now accused of sexual harassment by dozens of women, reflected an altered cultural context that has put a spotlight on executive behavior across all industries. A New York Times article detailing charges against Weinstein made headlines worldwide on Oct. 5, spurring millions of women to speak out about workplace experiences.
In stark contrast to Weinstein’s case, no sources have suggested that Heathcott’s inappropriate behavior was physical. Instead, Heathcott’s notoriously freewheeling comments and demeanor are said to have grown worse over the past four or five months, though several former staffers believe the agency should have acted sooner on earlier complaints.
‘The Worst Thing’
One former executive said he lost his job after demanding an apology over “a highly inappropriate comment” he says Heathcott made about his daughter. “That was the worst thing, but I’ve heard him say a lot of other things that people just shouldn’t say,” he said.
Heathcott’s remark came, the ex-employee said, during the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in March 2016 in northwest Arkansas, where three people who were present recalled Heathcott urging a visit to a nearby strip club.
When the ex-employee received a cellphone call and told Heathcott it was from his daughter, he said Heathcott replied that he would like to see the man’s daughter strip.
The ex-employee said he later told Gray that Heathcott owed him an apology. Heathcott denied making the remark, and Gray came to view the dispute as one man’s word against another’s, the ex-employee said.
Gray would not comment on the personnel issue, but CJRW employees say privately that work issues led to the employee’s departure months later. “In reality,” the former employee replied, “it was that I called Gary out on something.”
A second former CJRW executive said that while he didn’t hear the remark about the man’s daughter, he could attest to the “gentlemen’s club episode.”
He said Heathcott had been drinking and encouraging colleagues to join him in a strip club excursion. “He said, ‘Come on! What else do you want to do? Hang out with all of these [expletive] losers?’” the former executive recalled.
A former tourism official who was present told Arkansas Business his jaw dropped when he heard the comment, astonished that Heathcott would insult “the whole state tourism industry” with one offhand remark.
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