How MedMen's consumer PR account went up in smoke

MWWPR was told it had won the cannabis retailer's consumer account, but things quickly changed.

MedMen's location in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Image via Med Men's Facebook account)
MedMen's location in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Image via Med Men's Facebook account)

LOS ANGELES: Cannabis retailer MedMen has pulled back the consumer PR account it tentatively awarded to MWWPR this summer after a review it started in March. 

MedMen’s involvement with MWWPR began in late March when the company issued an RFP for a consumer PR firm. The shop that previously handled MedMen’s consumer-facing account for more than a year, Los Angeles-based Azione, declined to pitch, according to its president, Leland Drummond.

Seven firms participated in the review, including MWWPR, even though the agency’s CEO, Michael Kempner, said in a statement that his firm had reservations about the account. 

"When we first received their RFP, MWWPR was initially concerned about rumors and publicly available information about MedMen," he said. The company is the defendant in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit filed by former CFO James Parker. Investors had also sued, claiming executives made decisions that were not in the company’s interest, but that suit has been dropped

Nonetheless, Kempner said MWWPR decided to pitch for the business. "After due diligence and assurances from MedMen that it was financially stable and that their rumored problems of the past had been resolved, we agreed to pursue the RFP," he said. 

MWWPR won the account on June 12. Shortly thereafter, it flew agency staffers to Los Angeles to meet MedMen executives and discuss plans for the account. However, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, MedMen canceled the relationship only two weeks after awarding it. 

"Notwithstanding the time, money and effort that was expended by MWWPR (as well as the other firms that pitched), a few days after our startup meeting and program planning, we were informed that the CFO had cancelled the PR program and that they would no longer be moving forward with us or any firm," Kempner said, confirming what happened. "In my 32 years as CEO of MWWPR, this was clearly one of the more dishonest and odd processes we have experienced."

MedMen executives did not respond to questions about why it awarded and then quickly pulled back the account from MWWPR. Initially asked about the consumer review, prior to Kemper’s statement, former MedMen VP of corporate communications Alison McLarty said MedMen decided to pause the review without choosing a firm. McLarty left the company at the end of July.

"We want to see just where we are as a team," she said at the time. "We’re doing some planning and making sure resources are being used in the right way and for the right things."

However, a source familiar with the RFP process and internal workings of MedMen pointed to disorganization among the company’s marketing and communications departments. "Exactly what happened was [they] chose an agency and now they’re in the process of blowing up the entire marketing department," the source said. 

"It’s a shit show, to put it mildly," the source added. "They’re saying they’re blowing it up because they want to make things easier and have a lot less process, but the story behind the story is that they have to cut a ton of expenses because they’re running out of funding." 

The Los Angeles-based company has seen a host of departures in its marketing and communications team. In April, three members of the senior management team resigned, including SVP of corporate communications Daniel Yi. CMO David Dancer also recently left the company, according to an individual familiar with the situation. 

Yi has since been named chief communications officer at Shryne Group, a Los Angeles cannabis grower and retailer. 

MedMen director of PR Briana Dougherty Chester left the company in June after working there for 16 months, according to her LinkedIn account, to join biodegradable water-bottle-maker Cove PBC as director of communications. 

McLarty has also left the company to rejoin Edelman, which had been handling investor relations, reputation and crisis comms for MedMen since last summer. An Edelman representative confirmed that McLarty is rejoining the PR agency. 

MedMen has since made hires from the fashion and entertainment world to refill its marcomms ranks. Christian Langbein, former SVP of comms for Prada, was named MedMen VP of communications. The company also recently hired Esther Song, formerly of Tory Burch, as SVP of marketing and communications and Sandey Kang, previously with CAA, as VP of brand marketing.

Edelman itself has stopped working for MedMen, which operates 37 cannabis retail outlets in 12 states. According to an agency spokesman, the PR firm’s contract with MedMen ended on July 1. 

Asked if his firm would have liked to continue working for MedMen, the agency’s Southern California GM, Will Collie said that "internal structural changes among [MedMen] management occurred, which meant that wasn’t possible."

MedMen had initially asked Edelman if it would manage the company’s consumer PR, but the agency turned it down. 

"When they said they were ending their partnership with consumer PR firm Azione, they asked us if we would be interested or able to do that. We said no because our policy does not allow us to do that," Collie said. 

Agency global president and CEO Richard Edelman has vocally adopted a strong public position against smoking, not allowing the agency to work with tobacco companies. The agency has extended that ban to vaping and similar non-smoking products from tobacco companies.

While it could not directly market cannabis, Collie said the policy did allow Edelman to handle corporate work for MedMen to create a "positive investor sentiment" toward the company and help executives with "challenges that impacted the stock price." 

Edelman’s policy also did not prevent the firm from helping MedMen search for a consumer PR shop, Collie said. 

"We helped them with the RFP process," he said. "So the intention was [the firm they found] would have been the consumer agency, and we would continue to do financial-focused work on creating positive investor sentiment on cannabis as a sector."

Collie said that Edelman’s cannabis policy has evolved since Congress passed a farm bill in 2018 that also addressed hemp and other cannabis-related products

"When the farm bill passed, our policy was reviewed, and we tried to build a policy that would help protect ourselves and our clients and allow the rest of the firm to explore those options," he said. "It’s important to know that like all major agencies we are seeing this as an evolving space and we have a responsibility to think critically about how and when to engage in the space. As an industry leader we need to be thinking about it, but it’s a nuanced area we’re tackling very carefully." 

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