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Nice Isn't Vice Squad's Niche

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LOS ANGELES Mark Roberts, founder and CCO of the new shop Vice Squad, had a revelation one day while freelancing: An unnamed Omnicom agency declared that it could not accept an online gambling client because of ethical concerns.

That made no business sense to Roberts, who had moonlighted as a freelance creative director for strip clubs in the past. "The adult industry feels ostracized by the business community," he observed.

So, a month ago Roberts and partner David Marett, who goes by the title vice president, opened a Dallas shop to service clients other agencies were too embarrassed or forbidden by networks to take, or who put them furtively in their portfolios and treated like second-class citizens.

Vice Squad didn't nab the online gambling operation ("that would have been like a flea trying to swallow an elephant at this point," said Roberts). But it immediately began freelancing for The Nicotine Patch tobacco stores (where, following one of Roberts' first suggestions, clients get free tobacco for turning in nicotine patches) and Vajuva, an herbal pill that claims to make women anatomically tighter during sex. " 'It comes in a small box' is the first bad idea for a tagline that I'm flirting with," said Roberts.

Despite marketing Vice Squad as the home for bad boys, last week the agency added a non-controversial client, Live Nation. The firm connects live music acts to venues -- including all House of Blues clubs - and made the shop its first AOR for Texas concert promotion. (Nationally, Live Nation spent $30 million in 2007, per TNS Media Intelligence; Roberts declined to reveal his billings.)

Having freelanced for "adult" clubs in the past, the agency's next push is to design an online system (Vice On Demand) for that sort of venue nationwide. "Are you a gentlemen's club owner or manager?" goes the pitch. "Is it an ordeal every week to get your ads together?"

Roberts, 40, realizes the risk in his enterprise. "Once you go after a topless bar, liquor, gambling, you are applying yourself in a way that will reflect on yourself for the rest of your career," he said. "We're going to be aboveboard and honest. Clients will know where we stand, and our pitch to them is that we know what they are about."

Roberts believes there are sectors of business that should be doing good advertising but aren't. "Why aren't [strip clubs] doing advertorials, event marketing?" he asked. "It doesn't have to be lurid; they can distinguish themselves creatively in marketing."