POSTED ON FEBRUARY 16, 2011:
Desperately Seeking Attention
If you haven't noticed, local advertising agencies aren't doing their jobs
David Littlefield was an English major in college -- an odd choice for a guy who wound up doing brand development work, he acknowledges. So when he prepared to enter the field, he recalled having to justify his decision to his mother.
“The power of control is definitely in the hands of consumers,” David Littlefield said. “They can pick and choose what they want to see and when they want to see it. The old paradigm of ‘We’re going to tell the masses what we want them to know’ is over.
"My mom asked me, 'Isn't this the first business somebody cuts back on when times are tough?'" he said.
Littlefield said that was true many years ago when he had just graduated from college, and it's still true many years later, now that he's the president and CEO of Littlefield Inc., a Tulsa-based company that counts such businesses as the Bank of Oklahoma, the River Spirit Casino, Ditch Witch and the Tulsa Metro Chamber among its clients. The company's website makes the distinction that Littlefield Inc. is much more than simply an advertising or public relations firm, though it offers both those services to help clients reach larger goals.
Littlefield had an answer ready for his mother then, one he still uses today when people ask him that question, as they have a lot lately.
"There are always going to be brands who know how to build something or provide a service they're really good at, but they don't know how to sell it," he said. "That's what I do. Advertising and public relations are all tools you use to sell stuff. You're bringing us in to sell more stuff, whatever that is. I love to do it. I guess I have a 'fixer' personality. When somebody brings us a challenge, it's all hands on deck. It's just a lot of fun."
Those challenges have increased over the past two years in the face of an economic crisis that has made it difficult to "sell more stuff" to consumers with less disposable income. According to Amber Hinkle, vice president of the Tulsa branch of the American Advertising Federation, that has forced the city's advertising, marketing, public relations and brand development companies to adapt.
"What I have seen is that advertising agencies are doing a lot more with a lot less," she said. "Just to keep clients where they want to be, they've learned to be creative, not only with the pitch, but with how they execute it. That's not easy to do in this day and age."
That creativity will be celebrated on Saturday, Feb. 19 at Cain's Ballroom at the 44th annual Addy awards program, when the best local work done in the field over the last year will be recognized. Hinkle, who chairs the event, described it as being similar in structure to the Grammys or the Academy Awards, although -- mercifully -- only a few of the winners are invited to the stage to make acceptance speeches.
Saturday is the biggest night of the year for the local advertising community, a chance for the those who spend their time creating, shaping and polishing the image of a product, service, company or individual to come together, compare notes, share some laughs and a few drinks, and take note of the best work that's been performed in their field in the past 12 months.
The Addy Awards also provides a good format for surveying the state of the advertising industry in Tulsa and discussing what lies ahead for it. Lean times have made such self-examination more important than ever, Hinkle said.
"A lot of companies can come up with a grand idea, but if their client's budget won't allow for it, they still have to find a way to make it work," she said, describing the challenge most firms are facing. "The same old same old won't work anymore. The audience is getting smarter, so you have to find a new way to interest them and get them to pay attention."
Tommy Campbell, the creative director at Brothers & Co., said firms that truly value their relationships with their clients will find a way to make a campaign work even with a limited budget.
"You have to find a way to squeeze more out of a dollar," he said, explaining that Brothers has created its own in-house video department in an attempt to cuts costs. "I guess that's where the creative part comes in."
Campbell believes that, thanks to social media, the relationship between companies and their customers is more transparent that ever, something consumers seem to want.
"That's good and bad," he said, adding that many companies need help taking advantage of that dynamic. "As a company, if you have a quick response (to a social media posting), it helps your brand. It's basic customer service. It's like having a 1-800 line. If you don't respond to that, it's a hit to your brand."
And it's no longer accurate to call that kind of feedback word of mouth, Campbell said.
"It's word of keyboard," he said.
Littlefield said the economic downturn and the technology explosion have turned the industry upside down over the last three to five years.
"The power of control is definitely in the hands of consumers," he said. "They can pick and choose what they want to see and when they want to see it. The old paradigm of 'We're going to tell the masses what we want them to know' is over.
"In a way, that's been very positive because brands have to be more on their toes now, more in synch with their customers and pay more attention to the relevance you're providing to customers," he said. "In a way, it's made for some better brands because they're putting the tools in place to better serve their customers."
Cranking up "This Machine"
Not every campaign that's mounted in the advertising, marketing, public relations and brand development fields is literally about selling more stuff. Occasionally, as Russ Florence says, it can be a much more difficult but more rewarding proposition -- getting people to re-examine some long-held beliefs, for instance.
Folk Song. After kicking the idea around with a number of friends and associates, Russ Florence concluded it only made sense to seize on a message first employed by iconic Oklahoma songwriter Woody Guthrie, who built a career around social-justice themes.
The president and chief operating officer of Schnake Turnbo Frank, a local public relations firm, was trying to come up with a public service campaign last year for the Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice -- a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting bigotry, bias and racism -- for which he serves as a board member.
Florence wasn't having much luck developing a theme for the campaign, but he recalled a trip he had taken to Austin, Texas -- the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" -- a while earlier where he had seen a television commercial for an anti-allergy product that featured the husband-and-wife team of Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis, a pair of Austin-based singer-songwriters.
"How cool is that? They're using local musicians as spokespeople. That gives the company some credibility and the musicians some exposure," he said to himself.
Florence tucked the idea away, hoping he could find an opportunity to adapt it for use in Tulsa. It wasn't long before he realized the public-service campaign he wanted to do for the OCCJ was the perfect chance to do that.
"I wanted to marry musicians and OCCJ," he said. "I wanted to run a common theme through it for OCCJ and Oklahoma."
After kicking the idea around with a number of friends and associates, Florence concluded it only made sense to seize on a message first employed by iconic Oklahoma songwriter Woody Guthrie, who built a career around social-justice themes. Perhaps the most enduring image of the legendary Oklahoma artist is a black-and-white photograph of him wearing a checked flannel shirt and strumming an acoustic guitar that features a hand-crafted sign taped just above the sound hole bearing the slogan, "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS."
Florence wondered if it wouldn't be possible to mount a campaign featuring contemporary Oklahoma musicians built around a "This machine ... " theme. The participating artists would be free to finish that sentence however they wanted, so long as it conveyed a message consistent with the OCCJ's goals.
It didn't take long for the idea to catch fire. Florence quickly secured commitments from such groups and artists as Cross Canadian Ragweed, Fedel, Sam and the Stylees, Jenny Labow and Eric Himan to participate, as well as photographers Jeremy Charles and Kelly Kerr. Tulsa's Walsh Branding put together the campaign of print ads, and publications throughout the state donated advertising space. The campaign was launched in August 2010, generating a good six to eight weeks of buzz, Florence said.
"It's not an ad for happy hour or convincing you to buy a box of candy for your girlfriend for Valentine's Day," he said. "It's a unique message. It hits people with some emotion, which is part of why I think it's effective."
Florence said this was more than just another campaign to him.
"For me, personally, this was a combination of a lot of things I believe in strongly," he said. "One is the mission of the OCCJ, which is to fight bigotry. The second is the Oklahoma music scene -- being able to get some recognition for some very deserving and talented artists. The third is, it's Oklahoma -- OCCJ's message is needed everywhere, including here."
Kerry Walsh, the principal at Walsh Branding, said when got wind of the campaign, he knew immediately he wanted his firm to work on it.
"We felt like we had to be involved," he said. "What we have made the company about for the last 20 years is social justice. Normally, when you take on a project like this, one or two people will work on it, but everybody participated this time, particularly because everybody wanted to."
Walsh was especially pleased about the campaign's tie to Guthrie.
"He was such a fighter for equality," Walsh said. "I think a lot of people now don't know about Woody Guthrie so much. This helped explore some of the things he stood for. And we had never paid much attention to OCCJ before, so this was an eye opener for us -- and, hopefully, everybody here."
Florence hopes so, too. He said that while the campaign purposely played down the OCCJ's role, the organization nevertheless has benefited from the attention the campaign has generated.
Before the "This machine" ads began running, Florence said, OCCJ had a good deal of participation from the interfaith community and establishment circles. What it was lacking, he said, was recognition from young people.
Brand New. Tulsa’s Walsh Branding put together the “This Machine…” campaign of print ads, and publications throughout the state donated advertising space. The campaign was launched in August 2010, generating a good six to eight weeks of buzz.
"What it did was introduce OCCJ to an audience that was not as aware of it as it should have been," Florence said.
The campaign's initial run lasted only a short while, but a second campaign -- featuring television spots, social media and bus shelters -- will be launched soon. Florence said Charles and Kerr documented their photo shoots with the artists with video cameras, as well, and that material will be featured in the 30-second TV commercials.
Walsh and Florence acknowledged they have no way of measuring the effectiveness of the campaign. But Florence said he was gratified by the response of the artists themselves.
"I think the thing I really enjoyed was how appreciative they were," he said. "To a person, it was not only about the exposure they were getting but how much they enjoyed being able to be a spokesperson for that kind of message. Not only that, but most of them said, 'It's about time somebody did something like this.' "
Shock and awe-pera
Shelly Brander faced a different sort of challenge when she and her husband Brent of Branders Inc. were hired to do the marketing for Tulsa's new WNBA team last year.
Shock Talk. With no game photographs or video to work from for its newspaper ads and television commercials, Branders Inc. had only one team icon to rely on, coach Nolan Richardson, who was already well known to locals for his success in the 80s at the University of Tulsa.
They definitely had a product to sell, Shelly Brander said. The problem was, it was a product with which few locals had any familiarity.
"It was a new idea -- an idea that women's sports could be that exciting," she said.
The Tulsa Shock came into being only after the franchise was relocated from its former home in Detroit several months after the 2009 WNBA season ended.
"The challenge of the campaign was, we didn't have the players here in the market when we started," she said. "And normally, you have a full year to work on something like this. We had a super-compressed time line and a challenging budget."
With no game photographs or video to work from for its newspaper ads and television commercials, Branders Inc. had only one team icon to rely on, she said -- coach Nolan Richardson, who was already well known to locals for his success in the 80s at the University of Tulsa. Brander said working with Richardson was one of best aspects of the whole experience.
"He was just like you would expect -- very, very charming and charismatic, even early in the morning, which is when you typically cut radio ads," she said. "He was completely cooperative, whatever we needed. He's so loved in this market. We wanted the real him to come through."
Along with the legendary coach, Brander said she and her husband decided to focus on the team's bright yellow color scheme for a campaign that was forced to rely on graphics and concepts, as opposed to stock photos and footage.
"We knew the budget would be limited, so we rode the yellow thing," she said. "That was our thing. We knew, even in a small ad, that would stand out."
As time went by, Branders come to rely on a third primary element in their campaign for the Shock, she said -- team mascot Volt, who began bonding with fans from his first appearance in the market.
"This Volt guy, I've never been around a mascot who was so energizing with a crowd," she said.
The idea of starting a campaign from scratch was not something the Tulsa Opera was forced to do, but it turned out to be the best choice for an organization that recently had turned over much of its leadership structure and needed a new image and a new way to reach out to patrons, according to marketing and public relations director Maria Gaw.
Drawing Board. Tulsa Opera’s reliance on rich music and elaborate costumes gives it a largerthan- life quality, which hadn’t been conveyed in the opera’s previous campaigns, said its marketing and public relations director Maria Gaw. After considering a variety of concepts and illustration styles, she and Jeff Savage and his Studio Savage LLC Savage wound up working with Denver artist, Hadley Hooper, to promote the 2010-11 season of La Traviata, Don Giovanni and Norma
So when Gaw began thinking about the best way to promote the opera's 2010-2011 season, she understood that some things needed to change.
"This is an interesting year for us because, in the past, the Tulsa Opera had always used photography in its marketing materials, and we thought it was time to change our strategy and use illustrations instead," she said. "We thought it was a better way to display the art form we are."
Opera's reliance on rich music and elaborate costumes gives it a larger-than-life quality, Gaw said, and that wasn't something that had been conveyed in the opera's previous campaigns.
"We wanted to help our audiences create a connection with what they see on the stage," she said.
Gaw wanted something different, and when she hired Jeff Savage and his Studio Savage LLC to carry out the campaign, the two began examining promotional materials for opera companies throughout the country in search of ideas. Gaw was disappointed to note that most companies, particularly the larger ones that were able to attract well-known headliners, were still relying on photographs of such stars as Renee Fleming.
But for a company like the Tulsa Opera, which employs headliners who are not as well known, that approach wasn't likely to pique anyone's interest, she said.
"We wanted something much more visually stimulating," she said.
Savage -- a veteran of the business who has worked in Dallas, Houston, Albuquerque, N.M., and Indianapolis, Ind. -- said it was clear to him that Tulsa Opera officials were looking to create more of a footprint for their organization, in addition to promoting their upcoming season.
"They wanted to separate themselves from everybody else," he said. "That ended up growing into a bigger approach, going back to the image of the company and their logo."
After considering a variety of concepts and illustration styles, Gaw and Savage wound up working with a Denver artist named Hadley Hooper to promote the 2010-11 season of La Traviata, Don Giovanni and Norma. Hooper's colorful, lush illustrations grace the company's posters, brochures and other promotional materials, combining with a new, contemporary logo to perhaps give potential patrons a new reason to consider the Tulsa Opera.
"So far, we've had a terrific response," Gaw said. "Just hanging up the posters around town, the volunteers and myself, we've had so many shop owners ask if they could keep the posters when the show is over. It's been fun to hear those kinds of comments."
That campaign, along with the rebranding effort highlighted by the new logo, has resulted in some much-desired increased visibility for the opera, she said.
"I've had a lot of people say to me, 'It looks like you guys are doing a lot of new things,' " she said.
Savage acknowledged that any time he develops a campaign that is a departure from what has been done in the past, it's a risk.
"But this probably wasn't as risky as you'd expect. It was really just driven by visuals. When you see it, it's quite nice," he said, crediting Tulsa Opera officials for being willing to go along with the change. "(They) were willing to let these visuals speak for themselves."
While neither the Tulsa Shock nor the Tulsa Opera campaign was easy to develop, for their creators, the experience was more than worth the trouble, they said.
Brander said she was particularly happy to have the chance to work on a project that might serve as an inspiration for her two daughters, both of whom she is trying to encourage to pursue athletics.
"Having the freedom to work with clients you believe in" is one of the great pleasures of her business, she said.
Savage appreciated the chance to work on a project that dovetailed so nicely with his personal philosophy.
"The way I approach the work I do is, I try to figure out how to make an impact, how to be memorable," he said. "It's one thing to let people know about your product. It's another thing to make them remember it."
The Horror, the Horror
There are marketing challenges, and then there are marketing challenges. When Todd Cunningham of Garage Media took on the task of developing the campaign for the Tulsa Project Theatre's new production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa last fall, he knew he had his hands full.
"This year, Rocky Horror was more over the top than ever," he said. "The director (Machele Miller Dill) said everything about this Rocky Horror will be bigger and faster, and it was. This campaign was part of that."
Cunningham turned to Third Floor Design, a student-run graphic design agency at the University of Tulsa, for help. He called the agency's co-founder and creative director, professor Teresa Valero, and asked if her students would be interested in submitting proposals for the project. When Valero agreed to have Third Floor take it on, her students spent a week or two developing their ideas before doing full presentations to Cunningham.
One, in particular, caught his eye -- a concept in which artist Luca Cavallaro had taken the image of actor Chad Oliverson in the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter in a decidedly different direction.
Cunningham's reaction was immediate as he turned to Cavallaro.
"I said, 'Well, you've turned Chad into Jesus,' " he said, noting the actor's deity-like pose.
Rocky Road. Outlandish as the winning Rocky Horror campaign turned out to be, the experience offered a more practical side the Tulsa University students that designed it, professor Teresa Valero said. “They got experience meeting deadlines and doing designs that would meet all kinds of formats,” she said.
Outlandish as the winning campaign turned out to be, the experience offered a more practical side for her students, Valero said.
"They got experience meeting deadlines and doing designs that would meet all kinds of formats," she said. "That's truly a reality check for the designer. For everyone, even the students whose designs were not chosen, they all thought it was one of the most fun projects we had ever had."
Cunningham acknowledged the campaign could have presented some problems, given the idea of presenting a cross-dressing male in a Christ-like posture. He was pleasantly surprised when the expected complaints failed to roll in.
"When you don't expect negative feedback, it comes in droves," he said. "But when you buckle down and sit back and wait for the roof to cave in, you get nothing."
This Rocky Horror campaign was certainly risqué enough to get people talking, but that buzz wasn't negative at all, he said -- and that was the ideal reaction.
"We were all in love with it," he said, noting that the production itself attracted record crowds.
Valero counts the campaign as another success story for Third Floor, which has a number of clients who have been relying on her students for a long time. The agency does only pro bono work for nonprofit arts and social service organizations.
"I think that's because we truly care for the client and we learn a lot every time we get a new project," she said.
Valero said the experience her students pick up at Third Floor has two focal points. The first is real-world, hands-on experience, resulting in a good possibility that their work will be used by a client.
The second is the promotion of a concept espoused by graphic design expert and author Steven Heller, that of the "citizen designer," Valero said, which relates to being part of and giving back to the community.
"These students are learning about nonprofits and what they do, but they're also becoming involved with them," she said.
Valero sees a surge of interest among young people in advertising, despite a challenging economic outlook.
"It's a field in which you can grow as a creative person because you get to work with so many types of people," she said, describing the appeal of the field. "You learn how to work with a copy writer, an account executive, a client, etcetera, and to me, that makes you have a bigger picture of the whole concept."
Littlefield said he sees the same trend, explaining that when his firm sends a representative to job fairs, it is always inundated with job seekers. When he comes face to face with young people interested in a career in advertising, his message is always the same, he said.
"This'll keep you young because it's something new every single day," he said. "The stuff that worked five years ago won't work anymore. If you don't have a natural curiosity, you won't be successful in this business."
Littlefield said he presents his staff with the same question every week: "What are we doing to help our customers grow their brand and their business?" If that answer doesn't change on a regular basis, Littlefield knows his firm is in trouble.
He also challenges his clients to constantly examine their relationship with their target audience.
"Brands can no longer be all things to all people," he said. "They have to stand for something. They can't be generic. That's the beginning of the end."
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