Agencies Recall the Big Blackout

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When the lights went out shortly after 4 p.m. Aug. 14, employees at MRM Partners Worldwide groaned.


Earlier that week, an Internet-borne virus had infected the New York-based direct marketing agency's computers, and IT employees were still working to restore the systems.


"It was a week we won't forget," said Pam Maphis Larrick, CEO of MRM, a unit of McCann-Erickson WorldGroup. "First we had the worm, and then we had the blackout."


Still, the 100-plus agency employees displayed the composure evident in New York, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland and other affected areas. Employees with cars offered rides to stranded co-workers. Homes were opened. Others walked tens of blocks together to train stations or home.


Clients, too, understood MRM's plight. Still, 10 MRM staff in New York did not let the blackout stop them from working.


"Everybody coped really well," Larrick said. "We had people that were lucky to get hotel rooms and worked together. They kept their rooms on Friday in order to work on client business."


Some midtown Manhattan hotels were running on generators, providing an oasis with power, working phone lines and Internet access. The few MRM employees continued working through the weekend.


When the lights went out Aug. 14, MRM employees immediately were asked to turn off the computers and leave the building. But the contingency plan for such emergencies did not work to its fullest.


"This time nothing was working because the phone system wasn't working," Larrick said. "So it became a viral network, from cell phone to home phone to whatever was working. We also encouraged people to listen to Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg and stay home on Friday."


MRM's Detroit office also was shut Aug. 15.


It was almost the same story at Wunderman's New York and Detroit offices. Though people were stuck in elevators, they were not victims of claustrophobia and the dark for long.


"We quickly realized it wasn't a short-term problem," said Barry Kessel, president and managing director of Wunderman New York.


The agency had backup power. Computers, servers and phone systems were shut off in an orderly fashion. And since Wunderman, like many agencies and some media, have half-days on summer Fridays, little valuable manpower was lost.


"Business is relatively quiet on Fridays," Kessel said. "All of us missed a few phone calls with clients, missed a few meetings. But clients were understanding."


That said, emergency procedures in place since 9/11 could not be fully implemented for lack of phone and Web access. The agency last revisited the procedures earlier this year when the New York subway system faced the threat of a strike.


Moreover, even if these procedures are in place, firms can do little without electricity but monitor the news and keep clients in the know.


Still, Kessel sees the glass as half-full. He is e-mailing 400 Wunderman New York employees for stories of heroism. The anecdotes will be posted on wunderman.com. Entries will run the gamut: pet rescue, dogs walked up and down a long flight of stairs, bunkering in the office and in a conference center, accounts of hospitality and so on.


"I think things like this tend to bring us closer together, and we'll put it all in our historic memory," Kessel said. "It brought everybody together. Thankfully, there was no loss of life."


In Toronto, ad agency and interactive communications specialist McLellan Group faced a similar situation: no power, no phone, no Internet. Staff was sent home after the city declared a state of emergency.


McLellan co-workers teamed up to ensure everyone reached home safely since all public transit was out of service. Cell phones did work sporadically. Technical staff worked on the weekend to monitor online project sites to minimize the effect of the blackout on clients.


Staff at another Toronto shop, Lowe RMP, found there was little they could do Aug. 14 and 15. Most clients are in Toronto or New York. Using backup power, it shut down the servers to protect against electricity surges. Many staff members did come in on the weekend to catch up.


"We're following the Ontario government's directive to cut power usage by 50 percent," said Peter Coish, CEO of Lowe RMP. "We're working in natural light and the windows are open. It's kind of nice, actually."


For some the stress was due not to opportunity cost, but another discomfort: the phone company's attitude. Connie Connors, New York-based CEO of technology public relations agency Connors Communications, found out that Verizon employees stop working at 7 p.m. on Sundays. But she discovered that at 10 p.m.


"Companies and the media love to over-hype the heroes and the 'back-to-normal in record time' message," Connors said. "This is dangerous. On Aug. 18 morning I personally contacted NBC because I was frustrated that they claimed everything was back to normal.


"We were beholden to Verizon and had to wait until they decided to show up," she said, "and they even put out a press release on Friday [Aug. 15], claiming how great they were that they were 99 percent back up and running. Maybe my company was in that 1 percent."


There were no reported burglaries in New York or Detroit agencies, though McLellan earned a rare distinction.


"We have a great deal of valuable equipment located in the office and rely on our alarm system to prevent break-ins," said Anne Tomsic, executive vice president of customer satisfaction. "But with the power out, and therefore alarm systems not working, we actually experienced a near break-in. Someone had tried to break in by knocking down the door. Luckily for us, our deadbolt stopped them. We were left with a large crack in the door."


For some chastened executives, the power failure shook their faith in technology. Larrick had left her Blackberry handheld device and cell phone in the office. She was without her contact list over the weekend.


"I will always carry on my person a hard copy of critical contact numbers," she said. "That blackout has made everybody pause. How lost we are when e-mail and technology won't function at full speed. It was a wakeup call."


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