More Questions Surface Over Ad Agency Process

OCEAN CITY – As the town starts to create the Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new advertising agency, some possible troubles are surfacing that could effect the next campaign because of the timing of the ongoing process.

The City Council last month went against the tourism commission’s recommendation to extend MGH Advertising’s contract, which expires July 1, for 15 months, opting rather to extend it to the end of the year.

The council asked Assistant Tourism Director Deb Travers to formulate an RFP that would be specific in detailing their desires for a new agency, but after some discussion about the RFP at last week’s tourism commission meeting, Travers could hit some turbulence while carrying out their wishes.

The current Rodney commercials that are being shown in five major markets were filmed last August, with about six months of work in pre-production, casting and creative work put in prior to that shoot.

The council voted to send out the RFP in upcoming weeks and choose an agency by October so the new company can start on Jan. 1, 2010.

That gives the new agency five months to complete an entirely new campaign and set of commercials if the current campaign (Rodney) is not deemed to be a success at the end of the summer.

City Manager Dennis Dare raised his concern about how a possible new campaign would be executed in a timely fashion, but via email, he said his main goal is to just have something in place for next summer, as per the council’s wishes.

“The decision has been made by the decision makers to do it this way, and now it’s my job to fulfill the decision,” said Dare.

Much of what the town is looking for in a new campaign seems to hinge on whether the Rodney campaign is successful. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly how to determine the campaign’s success.

Room tax revenue numbers have been argued as a good way to gauge the success of Rodney, but the timeliness factor of the release of those estimates becomes an issue as there is a substantial delay between reporting dates.

In essence, the town will send out the RFP detailing what they are looking for in an agency, before they are able to determine if they will continue to use the Rodney campaign or will be seeking new creative ideas from an agency. Greg Shockley, owner of Shenanigans and a member of the tourism commission, expressed concern with the direction of the process.

“The RFP is going out in two weeks, and we won’t know if the campaign is successful by then, so we are going to miss the boat entirely,” said Shockley.

Travers said that if the Rodney campaign is deemed successful, a new agency, which usually would be chosen for the creative prowess, could simply have the task of placing media buys for the exact same commercials that are running currently.

“There seems to be a perception that MGH has failed to bring business to the town and that it is time to go get some new ideas,” said Travers, “but MGH worked on just over a million dollars for their entire tenure with the town until this year [when the budget spiked to over $3 million]”

As media costs go up an average of 10 percent each year, Travers said that the stagnant $1 million advertising budget that MGH had to work with for the past six years led the company to ask the town to rethink its strategy and tactics.

“I remember [MGH] said to me that if the advertising budget didn’t get increased, it would almost not be worth buying anything, as we were getting less and less for that same amount of money,” said Travers.

The council has told Travers it wants a full-service, Maryland-based company who works on a fee-based system, rather than on commission, and wants to make the eventual final decision on the winning agency.

“They want the tourism commission to narrow the search down to four or five candidates and they want to pick the winner,” said Travers, “but they might be narrowing the field too much by asking for just a fee-based company.”

The other tangible argument that has not come up yet is Rodney the Lifeguard’s contract, which was negotiated by MGH for two years.

If a new agency is chosen and the campaign is deemed a success, a new agency will have to renegotiate Rodney’s contract with his New York-based acting/modeling representatives, Frontier Booking, and it could be argued that if the campaign is a success, the actor’s company could ask for more money, in addition to the expected rise in price that the town pays to an advertising agency.

Currently, the town pays MGH a flat fee of $160,000 per year, but the agency reportedly sees other revenue through media buying commissions.

Travers, however, was quick to quote Councilman Joe Hall, who said during the council’s vote to extend MGH’s contract through the end of the year, “it’s not about the money, it’s about finding the best company to do the job.”

Mayor Rick Meehan tried to rally the tourism commission to stay positive and look for ways to get the job done, regardless of the proverbial bumps in the process.

“This was a council decision that we are faced with, and now we have to get on the same train and make this thing work,” he said.