The Anatomy of an Ad World Scam | Adweek The Anatomy of an Ad World Scam | Adweek
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The Anatomy of an Ad World Scam

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For many hungry ad agencies hit by alleged fraudster Gilbert Solnin, the pitch was promising if somewhat vague.

“I do have a very unique opportunity which I wish to discuss with you and would like to follow up with a telephone call to speak to you about it,” he wrote to Maris, West & Baker, a shop in Jackson, Miss. “I am seeking an agency that understands more than traditional advertising and would be of great value to the business I have, which includes managing a unique venture very soon.”

For Scott Burke of Mortar Agency in San Francisco, Solnin’s offer was just too good to pass up.

“Last year wasn’t exactly going gangbusters for anyone, so if we could get some leads, that would be great,” Burke explained. Eight-year-old Mortar eventually forked over $10,000 to Solnin in order to secure business which the firm says was never forthcoming.

On Wednesday last week, the U.S. Postal Service issued a warrant for the arrest of Solnin, 61, on charges of mail fraud related to his beverage venture, maintaining that these agencies were just a few of over a dozen that the Long Island resident allegedly bilked out of a total of at least $400,000. In response to the warrant, Solnin surrendered himself to authorities at the federal court house in Central Islip, Long Island. He was released on $250,000 bond.

HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
Solnin, who provided a biography to Adweek stating that he spent 12 years at Seagram in the 1980s revamping and revitalizing the Crown Royal whiskey brand, approached a selection of mid-size and boutique agencies, claiming he was in on the ground floor of a new beverage campaign in the U.S.

A letter that Solnin provided to one agency said that U.K. venture capital group CVC had agreed to bankroll the introduction of three new beverages in the U.S.: Vodka 14 from Colorado, Ronin energy drink from Minnesota and Finn Aqua from Finland. He just needed ad agencies that could handle the accounts.

For many of the businesses, a few kind words helped steer them toward the deal. “I’m really impressed and delighted by our discussions and accomplishments of your agency,” Solnin wrote to Kaiser Marketing, a 40-year-old boutique ad and PR firm in Los Angeles.

“They’ve heard of us. We do good work. We deserve this,” said Bryan Ward, founder of the 34-person firm Giant Ideas in Pittsburgh, explaining how the flattery worked.

Interviews with a dozen agencies confirmed to Adweek that Solnin flew to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Dallas, St. Louis, Portland, Ore., and other cities around the country from 2006 to late 2010, on each firm’s dime, to pitch his drinks campaigns.

Once the agency expressed serious interest, Solnin offered a contract. The terms were loose. The agreement with Giant Ideas, for example, stipulated that Solnin would be paid $3,500 to $8,000 via direct deposit on the 15th of every month.

Secrecy was paramount. Agencies that reached out to any of these drink companies on their own risked violating the terms of Solnin’s contract and blowing the deal. On the flip side, if the agency decided to back out, Solnin had a year to return the fees.

Once the contract was signed and the fees were paid, Solnin was charged with drumming up new business for the agency for the next five years, starting with this beverage deal.

DISAPPEARING ACT

Yet both the USPS complaint against Solnin and the agencies interviewed for this story claim that Solnin’s work was never done. Federal court records describe Solnin as an erratic communicator who attributed his lack of progress to a variety of ailments: dizzy spells, complications from a car accident and even multiple sclerosis, which he allegedly had been diagnosed with recently.

Matt Baris, who runs Vodka 14, said that he had a three-month-long flirtation in 2006 with Solnin, who promised to promote his brand nationally and then disappeared.

“We were all going to make a fortune,” said Baris. “We gave him all of this information, and then he completely fell off the face of the earth.”

Over the next four years, Baris said that he fielded calls from 25 different ad agencies looking to verify his connection with Solnin.

Jeff Nachreiner, who ran energy drink brand Ronin, LLC, until 2007 when it was discontinued, had a similar experience.

He said that he paid Solnin $6,000 to go in on the beverage campaign but, like the others, lost contact.

Nachreiner has also received calls from ad agencies looking to verify his involvement. “[Solnin] was trying to use the Ronin name three years after it no longer existed,” he said.

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