Friday, October 9–Officials Weigh In On Advertising Agency Search

OCEAN CITY — Some City Council members say that at this point, there is little else to say concerning the town of Ocean City’s advertising agency search until the potential candidates actually do their presentations.

Yet, that didn’t stop a few other members of the town’s “voting seven” from hammering home their proverbial counterpoints on Monday night.

The back-and-forth banter between town officials concerning the upcoming advertising agency “try-outs” has started to resemble the two-week, under-the-microscope and redundant analysis prior to the Super Bowl, as seemingly every step of this process has been re-stated, and borderline over-emphasized in recent weeks as town officials have refuted claims that any of the 10 agencies up for the job have been eliminated and reiterated just who will have a say in the final voting process.

As a result of what Tourism Chair and Councilwoman Mary Knight called a “misrepresentation of information”, the Tourism Commission changed to a much more formal format last week in hopes that information talked about during those meetings would be clearer to not only those in attendance, but the public at large.

“The last I want is for anyone to say that this process is corrupt,” said Knight. “That’s why we are being so careful with each and every step of this process, and it’s a good process.”

At a council meeting at City Hall last month, Tourism Director Deb Travers told the council that two of the 10 companies up for consideration represented other tourism destinations and could be removed from the list as, at the time, she was under the belief that the town didn’t want to go down that road.

At the Tourism Commission meeting the following week in September, Travers mentioned that five of the 10 companies that had responded to the town’s nine-page Request For Proposal (RFP) had offered up hourly rates, which was different than the rate structure asked for in the RFP, and alluded that those companies could be trimmed as well for failing to meet the specifications indicated in the RFP, as is usual town policy, which could have assumedly trimmed the list of 10 candidates down to three.

What followed was a mild uproar from the business community and several council members and a quick clarification from Travers and Knight, claiming that none of the companies had been trimmed from the list of 10, and that the companies were contacted and clarified the information they provided so that the town could compare “apples to apples”, as per Knight.

The two agencies that represent other tourist destinations were also kept on the list, keeping the number at nine new candidates, and MGH, the town’s current agency, which is vying to retain the proverbial crown it has held for the past seven years.

This week, Council members Joe Hall and Margaret Pillas took umbrage with the decision to withhold the 10 advertising agency’s proposals from the town’s essential business partners in the decision: the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) and the Economic Development Committee (EDC).

Citing City Solicitor Guy Ayres’ recommendation, Knight told the Tourism Commission last Thursday that the council would be the only entity that receives the rather thorough agency proposals in advance and noted that the voting members of the EDC, chamber and OCHMRA (hotelier Michael James, chair of the EDC, John Gehrig, president of the chamber, and hotelier Jon Tremellen, president of the OCHMRA, respectively) would get a look at the information on Oct. 20, which is the day of the actual presentations.

“It’s not that Guy [Ayres] recommended that we do it this way, he told us this is how it had to be done,” said Knight. “There is a lot of proprietary information about each company in there that we can’t let out into the public so the process isn’t skewed.”

Pillas questioned the move on Monday night, claiming that members of the business community are concerned with what she called, “withholding of information.”

“I haven’t talked directly to Michael [James], John [Gehrig] or Jon [Tremellen], but I know there are other people in the business community who are concerned that they won’t have an active voice in this,” said Pillas. “Some of these proposals are over 30 pages long, and there’s nothing in these proposals in my opinion that our closed session partners can’t and shouldn’t see so they can help make this very important decision for the town.  I believe they should be just as informed as the Mayor and City Council.”

Joe Hall agreed with Pillas, and revealed that though he’s happy with the fact that the process is happening and that the list is still at 10 agencies, he still believes there is one real frontrunner: MGH Advertising.

“There are people who have gone on record showing that they are slightly biased towards MGH, and as much as I don’t think it’s an impossibility that someone is going to come in and blow us all away so much that we want to move away from MGH, I think it’s just highly unlikely,” said Hall.

Hall went on to call the move to withhold the information from the town’s three partnering entities an “insult to whom those men are as businessmen in this town and the entities that they are representing by making them go into these presentations essentially blind.”

Interestingly enough, the three men in question, Gehrig, James and Tremellen seem to be absolutely fine with not getting their ad agency proposals until Oct. 20.

“I respect that they are saying that it’s proprietary reasons, and I realize that it’s just a good thing that we get to have a say in any part of the process,” said James. “I’ve seen enough of these types of presentations in my day that I’m sure I will catch up very quickly.”

Tremellen agreed and noted that in the end, his vote is not going to be the final decision maker.

“It doesn’t matter to me when we get the information because in the end, it’s the Mayor and City Council and City Manager Dennis Dare who get the final say anyway,” said Tremellen. “After seven years of the same agency, I think it’s good that we are doing this, but in the end, my vote is just going to narrow down the number, but they are going to pick who they are going to pick.”

Gehrig was a bit perplexed as to why the proprietary information that the town was so insistent on keeping close to its proverbial hip was being released at all if it could potentially skew the process.

“I’m fine with not getting it until the day of the presentations, but either give the proposals to us or don’t, I don’t understand why they would wait until the day of,” said Gehrig. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Knight says that the 10 agencies will present on Oct. 20 and 22, with “probably five companies each day.”

Then on Friday, Oct. 23, the Tourism Commission will hold a special closed meeting, including all members of the City Council, and the three entities in question, with City Manager Dennis Dare as the mediator, where they will either dwindle the candidates down to finalists, or if things go as Knight hopes, they will name a winner.

“I just hope that someone will stand out so much that it will be an easy decision that is also the right decision for the town of Ocean City by the end of the day on Oct. 23,” she said.