In Client-Side Efforts, Shops See How Other Half Lives

When Richard Kirshenbaum makes a suggestion on the new Phyllis George Beauty line, it generally becomes a reality.

As a member of the investor group that backs the brand, which launched last week with the former Miss America George pitching her products on HSN, Kirshenbaum is enjoying a degree of clout he doesn’t always wield with his clients at MDC Partners’ Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners.

“It felt great,” Kirshenbaum said of being on the client side. (The KB+P co-chairman and his partner, fellow co-chairman Jon Bond, made personal investments in the initiative.) “When you’re in a client-service business, you give your opinion and hope your clients agree. On this side, you can effect change through your opinion.”

Kirshenbaum is not the only ad executive with an opportunity to see the world through a client’s eyes. By chance or design, several ad execs have found themselves marketing products of their own—an experience that provides insight into their day jobs, if not always extra cash. And creating images for the items may be second nature, but developing distribution networks and worrying about things like SKUs come by trial-and-error.

In one case, a client’s financial situation led one agency’s execs to the other side of the table. The two principals at New York independent Seiter & Miller found themselves owning an energy-drink line after a client bailed on bills. The principals, Livingston Miller and Steve Seiter, three staffers and four other investors took over the line of Ultima Replenisher drinks as part of a settlement with the former client (which the shop declined to name) in 2001, according to agency executives.

For creatives, the experience is akin to that of young adults who realize they have become their parents. “As creatives, we have this narrow point of view that the essence of the brand is the creative oomph that we bring to it,” said Miller, creative director at Seiter & Miller. “Now, I find myself saying things like, ‘Make the logo bigger.’ “

Miller noted that since 2001, Ultima’s sales have jumped from $50,000 to an anticipated $800,000 this year. (Miller, partner and president Seiter and the seven other investors have not made any money yet, but Miller said the business is expected to be profitable in 2005.) His biggest coup this year was not a creative campaign, but Ultima’s introduction in 17 Whole Foods stores in New York City and New England.

“We’ve done a lot of hardworking retail ads,” he said. The agency has placed ads in Runner’s World and local newspapers in areas where specialty shops carry its product. “You have to get trial—that’s the No. 1 thing,” Miller added.

The cd and his investment partners now spend weekends at booths near marathon sites and extra hours negotiating sponsorships for the races. “We’ve gone from something we saw as a hobby to something that could be very, very worthwhile,” Miller said.

Making money is an obvious goal, but Gyro Worldwide wanted an outlet for its creative staff—as well as a learning experience—when it started two fashion brands in 1999. Marketing them has allowed the Philadelphia independent to amass a wealth of guerrilla-marketing experience it now offers to clients such as Mountain Dew and Camel.

Print was originally part of the mix that Gyro president Steve Grasse used to sell his G*Mart and Sailor Jerry lines of T-shirts and accessories to the laddie- and alternative-magazine set. What little marketing money the agency budgeted (about $30,000, said Grasse) was thrown into ads in alternative fashion mags like Yellow Rat Bastard and While You Were Sleeping. “It didn’t make a bit of difference,” said Grasse. “That $30,000 would have been much better spent applying it to an aggressive PR campaign.”

It was ultimately a public relations effort orchestrated by Gyro that created a buzz for the brand. The clothing lines were mentioned in the fashion pages of FHM and Maxim through those efforts, not placed ads. Gyro also used viral and event marketing to make contact with targeted consumers through extensions of the brand, like sampling “Sailor Jerry Rum” at tattoo conventions and biker rallies.

“What we’ve learned is how to teach clients to reach tastemakers and legitimately develop cool brands,” said Grasse. “It takes time, and it takes a variety of strategies, and your media plan better not just be 30-second TV spots.”

Kirshenbaum’s involvement with Phyllis George Beauty began two years ago, when the idea was hatched over lunch with the ex-beauty queen. George, a former client of the agency’s (it handled her “Chicken by George” chicken-products line), as well as a friend and neighbor of Kirshenbaum’s, soon afterward was in business with the shop’s principals.

KB+P is not involved in the initiative, but Kirshenbaum’s marketing talents have been called into play. “There are certain things I have strengths in—product ideas, design, naming,” he said, noting he is like a “creative sounding board” for the brand.

For Miller, the client’s world is more constant than agency life. “We [in advertising] live in such an insecure world,” he said. “When you have a consumer brand that has a following … it tends to have its own momentum, and I’m not sure that’s true of advertising. Every morning, we have to push the rock up the hill.”