Shhh, They're Giving Ads Away

What agencies offer for creative control may surprise you

When Mike Andrews needed advertising for his unrepentantly beef-oriented restaurant J.D. Hoyt's in Minneapolis, he went to one of the top agencies in the country, Fallon McElligott. Normally, the firm handles high-profile, multimillion dollar accounts like Miller Lite, United Airlines, Timex watches, and Coca-Cola. On the surface, there's no reason it would look twice at such a low-budget client. But Minneapolis-based Fallon McElligott not only accepted J.D. Hoyt's business, it gave the steak house $20,000 or so in creative services...for free. Why?

Restaurateur Andrews offered the agency something better than money: creative freedom. "He said, `Push the envelope, go wild,"' recalled Robert S. Barrie, the campaign's art director. And that's what he did, producing an irreverent, vegetarian-bashing campaign on a series of posters and billboards with such headlines as: "We believe in the proper treatment of animals. Which is why we use only the finest sauces." The campaign won a prestigious award for the agency, generated publicity, and, most important, helped boost business.

It's one of the best kept secrets of the advertising industry. For the asking, some of its best minds will donate creative services--copy writing, art direction, and design--to clients who let them work without the usual irritating constraints of tight deadlines, censorious executives, and endless committee approvals. Not incidentally, the agencies view these ads as a way to win prestige-enhancing industry awards. Mary Warlick, executive director of The One Club for Art and Copy in New York City, which hosts the high-status The One Show awards, says small clients are particularly desirable because the creative team gets ready access to top decision makers. "If you have to go through layers, there are too many opportunities to kill ideas."

Agency largesse is most often directed to nonprofits and government agencies, but private-sector recipients range from dinner theaters to car dealers to law firms. For example, Stephen R. Bergerson, a partner specializing in advertising law at Fredrikson & Byron PA in Minneapolis (and a former ad executive himself), got free help to produce a no-holds-barred ad campaign touting his services in the advertising trade press. One ad read: "If you think it's too much trouble showing your ads to a lawyer, try showing them to a judge." The calls flooded in. "I went from abject failure to huge success," crows Bergerson, who now has over 400 clients.

Bergerson was fortunate to have connections in the ad business. But many more businesses could get help--if only they knew how to ask. "We'd go crazy if someone came up and said, `I need advertising and we'll let you do whatever you want,"' said Tom Amico, a senior vice-president at Wells BDDP in New York. "That's what we would call a dream client." Amico's sentiments are shared at agencies of all sizes, particularly those with a creative bent, which donate services usually for print media, sometimes for radio, and rarely, TV. A look at one award show turns up ads produced at little or no cost in Charlotte, N.C., for The Cigar Bar at Arthur's ("Telling intolerant little people to go to hell doesn't necessarily require words"); in Chicago for Oscar Isberian Rugs ("Allah is in the details"); in St. Louis for Hunan Garden ("Which would you rather have at our restaurant, good English or good Chinese?").

As part of the deal, the businesses usually buy the ad space or time and cover other associated costs, such as printing. But in some cases, small cash-strapped businesses pay nothing at all.

There are some caveats. For one, control freaks need not apply, since creative freedom is key to the whole process. And unfettered creative directors may well produce ads that are controversial or flirt with bad taste. The J.D. Hoyt campaign, for instance, sparked picketing by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (That was just fine with Andrews: It reinforced his slogan of "a restaurant for carnivores.") Also, if you're in a rush, be careful. Paying clients usually come first.

How do you hook up with an agency? Usually, it's copy writers and art directors--"creatives" in industry parlance--who seek out businesses to fit their concepts. For example, Brent Ladd, a creative director at Austin-based GSD&M, whose clients include Pennzoil, Wal-Mart Stores, and Southwest Airlines, happened to shop at tiny Rootin' Ridge, where husband-and-wife owners Paul and Georgean Kyle sell handmade wooden toys. "We are such a small business that any kind of ad program is beyond our reach," said Georgean Kyle, "but Brent said he had some ideas." Ladd designed posters emphasizing the toys' noncommercial simplicity and footed the entire bill. The ads, placed in the store's windows, have won prizes and revved up sales.

If you go prospecting for an agency yourself, make your case to the creatives--not the "suits" on the account side. "The creatives are the softies who will accept your project--but for totally selfish reasons," advises Kelly Marshall, assistant creative director at Rick Johnson & Co. in Albuquerque.

Lack an ad agency contact? Seek out local clubs for agency types. And do a little research, too. To find out which agencies take on smaller clients, check the catalogs published by organizations that sponsor the major ad awards, such as The One Show, the Addy's, or the Andy's. These books, available in some library reference sections, list agency winners and their clients. Or check out award-winners in trade magazines such as Communication Arts.

Then, again, you might woo an agency with your own classified ad in the trade press, touting "best client in the world, no budget, complete freedom," says one creative director, Caroline McGeorge. Or call one of the agency's creative directors who can direct you to a creative team hungry to do innovative work. In all cases, stress your openness and flexibility and explain that no one stands between you and the final decision.

"HAVING FUNGHI?" If you state your company's marketing goals clearly, creatives will often accommodate your objectives. They did with Rudy F. Karkosak, owner of tiny Rudy's Exotic Mushrooms in Richmond, Va., which projects $30,000 in sales this year. When McGeorge, then at O'Keefe Marketing (now CadmusCom), proposed '60s-esque bumper stickers reading "Shiitake Happens," Karkosak balked. "They were trying to really hype up the psychedelic end, but I wanted this to be a classy, upscale business," he says. Their compromise for posters, bumper-stickers,

T-shirts, and postcards: "Are You Having Fungi Yet?" Karkosak also got a logo, other marketing materials, and advice--worth about $40,000. And he got the desired "buzz" in Richmond. His T-shirts are visible all over town. Now, he says, "everyone knows who I am."

Catchy free ads could help your business, too. Your enterprise might not be as exotic as mushrooms, or as juicy as a steak house with an attitude, but there's no telling what will inspire the agency muses given the chance. Creative freedom is a small price to pay.

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