Agencies pulling stunts to win clients

Times Staff Writer

When they heard that La-Z-Boy was looking for a new ad agency, executives at RPA bought one of the company’s recliners, trained a Web camera on it and took turns sitting in it, declaring that they wouldn’t leave it empty until they got a meeting. They spent Super Bowl weekend in the gold-colored chenille chair and won the $35-million La-Z-Boy account.

For ad agencies pitching prospective clients, “the bar just continually gets higher,” said David Smith, creative director at Santa Monica-based RPA, who pulled a 10-hour overnight shift. Stunts “help you get noticed and stand out from the pack.”

In the old days of a few years ago, Deutsch LA, one of the region’s biggest and oldest agencies, would spend six figures on a pitch and blow the competition out of the water, Deutsch President Mike Sheldon recalled. Now, he said, it’s routine for an agency to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars simply to get a client’s attention.

What changed? For the advertising industry, most everything. There’s been a steady shift away from time-honored ad channels -- TV and radio, print publications and billboards -- to digital media. And there’s a growing pack of fresh-faced agencies with unconventional attitudes and approaches that are giving established shops a run for their money.


The field is so crowded that the big agencies are going after accounts they used to scorn, and spending a lot to win them. These days, “clients’ demands require more expenditure,” said Don Just, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter in Richmond, Va.

And more gimmicks. Jos Anshell, chief executive of Moses Anshell agency in Phoenix, bought dozens of summer sausages with the idea of sending them to potential clients with cards saying, “This is the last baloney you’ll ever receive from us,” but the meat went bad before he could dispatch them.

Another effort had a better result. In the midst of shooting a commercial for the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., Anshell decided to take advantage of the crew and actors to make one on his own time and dime for Joe Boxer, an underwear maker. The 30-second spot showed cowboys riding into the sunset in their boxers. He sent it to a Joe Boxer executive, and the company bought it.

For some businesses, passionate pitching can be overwhelming. Jerry Levy, vice president of marketing for global logistics company Agility in Santa Ana, was inundated with gifts last year from agencies that wanted to run Agility’s ad campaign. He said he received a multi-country Brookstone clock, football tickets and a miniature shipping container, and felt uncomfortable.

Marina del Rey-based agency Ignited tried a different tack, flying two employees to a meeting of Agility executives in Houston. Levy was surprised to see them outside the conference room but invited them in to be grilled about their work. The strategy catapulted Ignited from third to first, Levy said, and Ignited won the $2.5-million account.

“That must have cost them a significant amount of money -- a few thousand dollars to get a last-minute plane ticket,” Levy said. “They took a risk and it worked for them.”

The risk doesn’t always pay off. Team One, based in El Segundo, pulled out the stops to keep the Boost Mobile account, which it was in danger of losing because Boost Mobile wanted a hipper agency with a better understanding of its mostly young and urban customers.

Team One rented a three-story house on Hermosa Beach, equipped it with funky furniture and video games, commissioned a graffiti-esque wall painting and staffed the place with employees in their 20s. Come pitch time, a chauffeur in a Hummer drove Boost Mobile executives to the beach house and they were given a tour of what Team One promised would be its new Boost Mobile marketing headquarters, devoted to selling the younger generation on the wireless companies’ products.


Boost Mobile didn’t bite, but Team One Creative Director Chris Graves said the tens of thousands of dollars spent went to a good cause: learning the new rules of the game.

“Every agency has to be prepared to do things like that,” Graves said. “It’s not business as usual anymore.”