Powell’s Fish Fry

Pirates have invaded Powell. “Silver Jack made us spend another two days in the bloody cave, looking at the treasure!” booms actor T.J. Glenn in an accent he later describes as “general Celtic.”

A Renaissance-fair staple, Glenn is in leather pants and a purple shirt to audition for the role of brawny-but-gentle Calabash, one of four pirate characters the New York agency has created to introduce Aurora Foods’ Fish ‘n Dips. Powell beat out Fallon and Momentum in a review for the account last October, winning over Aurora as the only agency to tout a strategy of targeting kids rather than moms. The shop also proposed promoting the frozen fish bites—packaged with individual ketchup dipping cups—by stirring up media coverage through event marketing.

The Powell team then had four months to come up with ideas for packaging, a Web site and a series of events aimed at getting kids’ attention. (Fish ‘n Dips will be in stores nationwide April 1.)

For Neil Powell, the business was a new kind of challenge. After the ex-managing partner at Fallon in New York and ecd at Duffy Worldwide opened his own shop three years ago, it became known for hip-ifying brands. Powell put Rheingold beer, for example, in 15 trendy New York bars and brought back the Miss Rheingold contest, updating it by using bartenders as contenders. Children—Fish ‘n Dips’ target is kids ages 3-11—are a new audience.

“We never really had the opportunity to work with kids, and it’s so refreshing, because you can suspend your beliefs and fantasize and go off on weird tangents,” says Powell, whose wife, Rachel—who does PR at the agency—gave birth to their first child a few weeks before.

Targeting the youngest consumers makes sense because “kids really rule the roost,” explains strategy director Josh Rogers. “There are certain things they absolutely love. Moms have veto power, but kids make an overwhelming number of decisions.”

Powell created four pirates for the launch: Calabash; Slip Knot, a wily South Asian girl; Wegman, a bit of a dandy; and Silver Jack, the crew’s dreadlocked African American leader. “We wanted them to be multiethnic, guys and girls, so everyone could have a favorite they relate to,” explains PR director Gina Contursi.

In addition to stickering Fish ‘n Dips’ packaging with cartoon renderings of the pirates, Powell suggested a series of treasure hunts starring the pirates. During the pitch, agency execs showed Eric Grosgogeat, director of frozen meals, and other client executives a leather-bound, illustrated book with the pirates’ back stories. They also screened a videotape of a treasure hunt held in the agency’s office.

About half an hour after the Oct. 15 pitch meeting, Powell got the unofficial call that they had won the business. “Powell’s pitch was the most technical and grass-roots,” says Michelle Luechtefeld, associate product manager on seafood brands. “We thought we could get a lot of media coverage out of [the campaign].” Powell is hoping the events will be covered by local news or talk shows, and included in print events listings.

The Powell team—which also included strategist Alison Kosakowski, project manager Elisa Carson, art director Omar Mrva and designer Travis Cain—proposed a Web site as well, purchasing fishndips.com for $80 before the pitch and working up a mock site. The real version, which goes live April 1, contains a scrambled message that can be read with decoders attached to the product’s packaging and handed out at the treasure hunts. One winner gets a vacation to Orlando, Fla., and $50,000. The site also includes treasure- hunt information, stories about the pirates and a virtual treasure hunt.

After winning the business, Powell decided what each character would look like—settling for a realistic look over caricatures—and then set about choosing cities to target. The under-$1 million budget limited the team to three markets, and they chose New York, Los Angeles and Orlando. (Fish ‘n Dips’ chief competitor, Gorton’s, spent about $7 million on ads last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.) The pirates will “sail” into the cities via cars decorated to look like ships, then pass out flyers about the hunts and help to run them. In New York, they will take over Chelsea Piers on April 18 for a treasure hunt.

At a mid-January brainstorming meeting at their airy Chelsea office, the Powell team gathers in the glassed-in conference room, snacking on chocolate-chip cookies from a nearby bakery. Picking treasure-hunt prizes, they decide fake tattoos and bandanas are affordable, and coupons stuck inside bottles are not.

Kosakowski draws the treasure map that contains directions to the hunt along with a coupon for Fish ‘n Dips (which will be branded under Mrs. Paul’s on the East Coast and Van de Kamp’s on the West Coast). Carson determines how much each item will cost and what quantity the team can buy it in. “I’m always looking for ways to make things cheaper,” she says with a sigh.

The items are approved via a conference call with Grosgogeat and Luechtefeld. Then the team continues to work on the Web site and begins casting for the pirate characters. At Glenn’s session, he kills the crowd by reciting “Jabberwocky” in several dialects. Kosakowski’s Jack Russell terrier sits on her lap, rests his head on the table and watches Glenn nervously. The rest of the team smiles and laughs—and eventually votes to hire him.

As the launch date nears for Fish ‘n Dips, Powell says he loves doing nontraditional campaigns. “We could have taken money and done a print campaign” he says. “But event marketing is a way to touch the consumers in a more meaningful way. We think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”