Julie Roehm: Moving On From Wal-Mart Debacle As Her Own Boss

February 25, 2011

Julie RoehmThis was Julie Roehm five years ago: Starting a new gig as senior vice president of marketing and communications at Wal-Mart, making big plans to reshape the giant retailer and looking ahead to the lifestyle that comes with a $325,000 annual salary, stock options and a $250,000 signing bonus.

This is Julie Roehm today: Independent marketing consultant scrambling to meet client deadlines, hustling for new business, cranking out blog posts and making time to serve on a few boards.

So what happened? You may recall her tenure at Wal-Mart didn’t last long. It ended badly, to say the least. She had started as a star, with a resume to die for in her mid-30s. She’d risen through the marketing ranks at Ford and made a splash at a senior level at DaimlerChrysler. But after less than a year at Wal-Mart, she was out.

Wal-Mart fired Roehm in late 2006, saying she’d accepted a sushi dinner from Draftfcb, the ad agency that had just landed the gigantic Wal-Mart account. Roehm had overseen the highly competitive hiring process. Roehm sued Wal-Mart, which countered by stating she’d had an affair with a subordinate. The company made public incriminating e-mail messages from Roehm. The whole mess became fodder for marketing industry headlines for months. (Fast Company did a lengthy post mortem in 2009.)

Since the debacle, Roehm has been far less prominent in the industry and the media. She’s building her business, writing for AOL Autos and appearing occasionally on Fox Business News.

She’ll be in the Twin Cities on Monday to speak during a Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association event series called Conversations About The Future Of Advertising (CATFOA 2011). The free event is at Fine Line Music cafe and begins at 5:15 p.m.

We caught up with her this week for a quick Q & A:

Q: Your talk is titled “Fearless in the Face of Marketing Complexity.” As you see it, what’s so complex about today’s marketing world?

What ISN’T complex about it?!! The proliferation of media, EVERY DAY, the measurement required to prove a strategy’s value, the open platform by which ideas are constantly flowing and therefore making ideas redundant before they even get off the ground…on the same token, the sharing of ideas allows those that want to learn become part of an exciting, fast-paced industry. Help is always around the corner in the form of social network groups, and the cost of great work has been squeezed because of the parity that the internet provides in terms of idea flow and verification.

Q: Now, about being “fearless” … What do you mean? Isn’t some fear a good thing? Shouldn’t Kenneth Cole have feared the reaction to his tweeted joke about the Egyptian revolution or Groupon the reaction to its Super Bowl ads?

Fear is a GREAT thing. I just wrote a blog on this. (You can see it on my website). Fear is what has kept us alive from the time of the dinosaur when we were being hunted for food to today when we use fear as an excuse to not do something or rather use it to push the boundaries. Fear equals adrenaline and adrenaline makes us strong. With respect to Kenneth Cole and Groupon? I think one should not confuse fear with arrogance. It is important to maintain some element of reality no matter how successful you are.

Q: Post Wal-Mart, did you try to land another big corporate job before striking out on your own? Or did you decide you’d had enough with in-house marketing? How has it been going as a consultant?

Initially, I was contacted and interviewed by a couple of large companies but call it PTS or whatever you want, I kept having flashbacks and decided I needed to separate from that environment for a while. Pulling from your last question, the choice to NOT go back in was the scariest thing I have ever done because truth be told, I had ONLY ever worked in large companies with tons of support before. I was afraid that I might not be as good without that support. But, fear makes you stronger as I said and I have been fortunate enough to have had some great clients and more calling every day. I now get called by companies for full time positions too. If the perfect opportunity came along, I might take it, but it is nice to have options. I love the entrepreneurial aspects of consulting like the variety, the start-ups, the energy, the work but I miss working with a team day in and day out and I miss sticking with something all the way to the end. I have had my consulting business for 5 years now..time flies!

Q: Your short tenure and departure from Wal-Mart has been well-documented. What lessons did you take away from the WalMart experience?

Too many to count but the biggest lesson is that culture matters. The other lessons have been a result of the experience in that as an entrepreneur, I have a totally different perspective of everything from corporations, to agencies, to start-ups, to people in general. Everything happens for a reason and the important thing is how you react and how you move forward. It is has also taught me that the media loves a story. I would like to think that of my almost 20 years in the business, and of everything that I have done personally and also on behalf of my employers, that I am not defined only by this 10 month experience, no matter how sensational the media made it. Most people see stories like these and take the glass is half-empty POV, but if you can see the glass is half-full elements, much more can be revealed about life, success and the pursuit of happiness.:)

Q: What are the most exciting things you’re working on these days?

I have some great clients! I am working with an auto start-up. It is the first real auto project I have had since my Chrysler days. I work with a digital media company, a social media/video start-up, and a social/mobile media agency as well. I am about to embark on another project with a Fortune 100 manufacturing company and continue to blog for AOL Autos, iMedia and periodically am a guest contributor on Fox Business News. I am also on the board of directors and advisory boards of a few companies so I stay busy but more importantly, inspired. The energy and the talent today is exciting!