Council Decides Against 15-Month Ad Agency Extension

OCEAN CITY – It’s been said that advertising is a thankless job, and despite the launch and initial success of Ocean City’s $3 million ad campaign, the town will thank MGH Advertising for its work by informing the company it’s on the proverbial chopping block.

Assistant Tourism Director Deb Travers brought her recommendation, along with the unanimous blessing of the Tourism Commission to the City Council on Tuesday in hopes of extending MGH’s soon-to-expire advertising contract with the town of Ocean City for the next 15 months.

Some council members vocally had their minds made up even before Travers spoke that they were not in favor of such a long extension, expressing their desire for a “fresh new look” concerning the town’s advertising strategy.

“I guess I’m just not as satisfied with the work that MGH has done as maybe everyone else is,” said Councilman Joe Hall. “There have been many strong legacy businesses in the town that have reached out to me saying that [MGH] aren’t quite getting it right.”

The council decided last December to set a date for a planned advertising agency review, but neglected to actually set a date for said review, hoping for Travers to report back on a strategy in the “near future” in the words of Hall at the Dec. 6 meeting.

“The staff has taken five months to get back to us, and now you are leaving me with one option of extending MGH’s contract for 15 months, which is way too long in my opinion,” said Hall. “I just don’t think the Rodney campaign grabs at the heartstrings of why people really come to Ocean City.”

Mayor Rick Meehan called the council’s 4-2 decision, with Council President Joe Mitrecic and Mary Knight in opposition, with Lloyd Martin absent, to extend MGH’s contract through Dec. 31 of this year, a “very bad business decision.”

“I thought the recommendation was a good one, and those in opposition had made up their minds before the conversation ever started,” said Meehan. “Although I fully support an agency review, the 15 months would have gotten us the full potential out of the campaign we just invested a lot of money in.”

Travers’ idea was to extend MGH’s contract to ensure that Ocean City would have the newly-created Rodney the Lifeguard character as its essential mascot for at least one more summer, citing that it’s rare that a new ad agency would use another agency’s creation as the foundation of a new campaign.

“We have to be consistent with our marketing,” said Travers. “No resort changes it up every single year, and overall, most people are very happy with the work that MGH has done, so I would hope that we don’t rush the process.”

According to Travers, over 44 agencies competed when MGH was awarded the contract seven years ago, and she anticipated a greater turnout in this economy.

The other talking point was price, which is to be expected when dealing with taxpayer dollars. Councilman Joe Hall, who is always vocal about his desire to save taxpayers some extra money, sang a bit of a different tune when presented with the idea that whomever is chosen as the new ad agency will more than likely charge more than the $160,000 flat annual fee that MGH gets currently.

“In this instance, it’s a good thing”, said Hall. “We are shopping for a service, not necessarily the best price. I just think that MGH’s campaign is too gimmicky and just tickles the thought process and is meant to merely make people chuckle.”

Travers cited the initial success of the current campaign in just its third full week, pointing out the three straight record weekends according to Demoflush numbers, yesterday’s national coverage on Fox News with and interview of the mayor and Rodney the Lifeguard and a spread in USA Today citing Ocean City as a value destination for the summer of 2009, as well as a cross marketing deal that will air the Rodney commercials in accordance with the popular cable show starring Dennis Leary, “Rescue Me.”

“I was told by some of the beach patrol members that people on the beach have all been calling them ‘Rodney’, so that shows us, in addition to all these numbers, that our call to action is working and Rodney has been well received,” Travers said.

Hall said later in the week that he would like to see a new agency draw in new customers, but not “ignore” the existing customer base in Ocean City.

“We were promised that us spending the amount of money that we were in advertising, and expanding the convention center, that we would see a net gain in profits in the business community, and all it’s done is spread the numbers out to the shoulder months,” said Hall. “My margins have shrunk, my costs have gone up, and now I’m working harder for the same money.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight, who was a proponent of the 15-month extension that died in a 3-3 vote, said she wishes someone would come up with some things that MGH lacks as an agency.

“No one can articulate what they don’t have as an agency,” said Knight. “I want us to do an agency review, and I’m looking forward to it, but I want a solution, and not just some sort of constructive criticism about the job they aren’t doing.”

Meehan conceded that he hopes the council doesn’t end up regretting the decision later on, especially when it comes to the price of the current contract.

“We have an excellent agency with a very favorable price, and people don’t see all the free ads, and behind the scenes work that MGH does,” said Meehan. “Everyone hopes the Rodney campaign is a success, and I hope common sense prevails in this situation, and we aren’t so close minded to ignore what we already have.”

The Request for Proposal (RFP) document for a new agency is currently being drawn up. New agencies will be essentially auditioned in September and a decision will be made in December in order for the new agency to take over on Jan. 1, 2010.