Ric Van Sickle’s an ad man who bleeds gasoline.
This weekend, he and a handful of his employees at Chicago agency Plan B will put their pedal to the metal in the low-budget junk car endurance race 24 Hours of LeMons, which Van Sickle hopes will boost the agency in the eyes of its automotive clients and within the vertical as a whole.
The race spoofing the French sports car endurance competition 24 Hours of Le Mans requires entrants to build a racecar for no more than $500, excluding safety equipment. Within the concept, Van Sickle see a fitting metaphor for his business.
“It’s not about who has the most money; it’s about who’s the most creative,” he said. “The teamwork involved is about problem-solving and innovation. I realized the LeMons race series was about the same thing we were all about.”
He said both LeMons and Plan B share the philosophy “that you can both have fun and outsmart the competition instead of outspending them.”
With a nod to legendary ad man Bill Bernbach and his “Lemon” Volkswagen campaign, Van Sickle said that a lemon isn’t always a sour deal. In fact, his particular lemon has already netted him a multimillion-dollar ad account.
Last month, he ran a simple half-page ad in an auto industry trade pub in which he was pictured standing in front of his Plan B’s racecar, a 1973 Volkswagen Fastback, with copy that read: “Our CEO’s company car.”
“It’s a beater, it cost less than what many ad agencies would spend on lunch,” he said. “It is proof that being budget-minded and being high-performance aren’t mutually exclusive. I tied our involvement with LeMons into a statement about our agency.”
Just two days ago, Van Sickle said he signed a contract with the tow truck and wrecker company Jerr-Dan, which provides towing and rescue vehicles for Nascar races. “They’re the biggest player in that category in the world,” he said. “We went there not knowing that this ad had anything to do with us being there....They spent 20 to 30 minutes in the meeting talking about our LeMons effort. They just loved that we were doing grassroots racing.”
What may seem at first like an unusual corporate team-building exercise has helped the integrated shop Plan B evolve from a general agency to a niche contender. A longtime auto restoration hobbyist, Van Sickle said that was only a part of the reason Plan B began homing in on the automotive vertical just as the industry began to fall apart in the early 2000s.
“We also happen to have a couple of employees who came on early from Detroit, from the auto industry, who brought some insights about how that industry worked,” he said. “It brought to light the things Chicago was missing out on. We’re adjacent to Detroit, and there was all that flux in the auto industry… I said ‘It looks like they need a Plan B.’ The industry failed and has now come back and I feel we represent part of the industry’s comeback, if you will.”