On The Road
Want to get a quick glimpse of branding in action? Step inside a Las Vegas casino. It's a carnival of flashing lights, clanging slots and costumed servers plying "consumers" with free highballs set in ridiculously make-believe, yet familiar settings: New York, Paris, Venice, ancient Rome, the Caribbean. No clocks, no reality and every walkway leads to more games. Every themed detail conspires to set the proper seductive mood. Escape your routine, kiss your inhibitions good-bye--it's time to be reckless. It's time to play.
They say Las Vegas has always been a state of mind rather than an authentic place--a dreamland or a nightmare, depending on your fortunes. For 20 years, R&R Partners has been in charge of selling that dream for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Paid for by taxes from the city's 122,000 hotel rooms, the $20-30 million marketing account is the biggest ad assignment on the town's famous Strip.
Billion-dollar casinos may be the princes of branding, but individually they shell out only $5-7 million a year each for ads, and are picky about conflicts. R&R's roster includes three casinos: the Egyptian-styled Luxor, Circus Circus and King Arthur-themed Excalibur, all owned by Mandalay Bay Resorts.
The agency itself sits about 25 minutes from the Strip, with the bizarre backdrop of the Luxor pyramid, Paris casino's Eiffel Tower and New York New York's Manhattan skyscrapers in the distance. The shop fills most of a low-key stucco complex surrounded by a suburban patchwork of new houses and tacky shopping centers.
The office atmosphere is upscale, sleek and casual, with silk plants in the lobby and hair spray in the women's bathroom. There are no visible tattoos, body piercings, bikes, espresso machines or Foosball tables. The only glitz is the collection of Las Vegas ads and posters on the walls. With about $120 million in billings and satellite offices in Reno, Nev., Utah, Arizona and Washington, D.C., R&R dominates the local ad scene, thanks largely to the Vegas tradition of doing business with your friends. Since founding the agency 26 years ago, Sig Rogich, 55, has advised notables ranging from former president George Bush to Mike Tyson. Although he left the shop, his imprint is still there. The shop's deep casino and tourism connections mean that "every event that happens in this town, from the Miss Universe pageant to the cowboys' bull-riding competition, is touched by R&R in some way," says a local insider.
Political operator Billy Vassiliadis, 44, is now the force behind the agency. Of Greek descent, the CEO is street smart, a guy from the old neighborhood--in his case, Chicago--who made good but never turned corporate. He savors beer, bars, sports and betting, and uses swear words for emphasis. He wears his graying hair a little long and submits himself to a suit and a meeting agenda only if he must. He sizes up people instantly and hides his sentimentalism with a gruff exterior.
His partner and counterpart at the company is the composed, elegant Mary Ann Mele, daughter of a Vegas bandleader. To explain how the duo operates, Vassiliadis recalls the day he got so angry about a media problem that he put his fist through an office wall--an act he's ashamed of today. "Mary Ann, thank God, was there instantly," he says, "making amends, calming things down." The next day he sent roses to everyone in the department. "Mary Ann and I get going full speed, and it's up to the other principals to harness us in and keep us on track," says Vassiliadis.
Asked about the large staff for a shop of its size--180 employees for $100-120 million in billings--Vassiliadis and Mele, 43, don't skip a beat. "We're an efficiency expert's nightmare," laughs Vassiliadis. "We hired a traffic manager a while back, and the staff went into shock." Adds Mele, "It took us years to adjust" to the manager's schedule.
Vassiliadis was thrust into a leadership post when Rogich handed off his responsibilities to work on Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential campaign. Nine years later, Vassiliadis and Bob Henrie bought the agency, and Mele and Jim King became co-owners of the entity in 1996.
While the glittering casino scene has been the agency's lifeblood, politics is its soul. Meetings are peppered with references to the political leanings of staff and clients. "And here's an idea for all the Republicans in the room," quips a creative director during a brainstorming session. Ad campaigns are likened to elections, and brands viewed as candidates. "We want to win," says Vassiliadis. The game is not so much about process, he says, but outcome. "We want some measurable result. We want to know that we beat our opponent--in this case the client's competition," he says.
Vassiliadis stays in touch with Rogich, who is informally counseling George W. Bush on his presidential bid. Vassiliadis, an unabashed liberal and Clinton/Gore supporter, appears with Rogich regularly on a local TV news segment in which they debate state and national issues, often with great relish. "You're the best spinner I know," Vassiliadis chided his mentor on a recent segment after hearing him boast of George W.'s achievements. After years of consulting with Democrat Bob Miller while he was Nevada governor, Vassiliadis is now working with Republican Senate hopeful John Ensign, the son of Mandalay Bay Resorts CEO Mike Ensign. The agency chief also finds time to lobby for the Nevada Resort Association, the political arm of the casino industry.
Meanwhile, agency principal Bob Henrie, based in R&R's Salt Lake City office, is a key adviser to arch conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who composes and sells religious hymns in his spare time. Henrie, former chief of staff for the House Mining Subcommittee, heads R&R's government affairs division. And, as a Mormon, he gives the shop an important link to the Mormon component of the Nevada and Utah business scene. The agency's political expertise has defined it over the years, and is now being used as a "portal" to its advertising services, says Henrie.
"Managing public policy should be part of a company's marketing program," he says, particularly in heavily regulated fields such as the utility, financial service and airline industries. The agency has dubbed its approach "brand protection," and PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and other blue-chip companies are among the handful of clients who tap the shop for political advice only.
The agency's government and public affairs division, for instance, monitored the rollout of P&G's controversial fat-free ingredient Olean in the late 1990s. It worked to preempt moves by critics in Washington, holding events including Olean-tasting dinners for influential politicians and media executives. The agency is now acting as a watchdog for other political and regulatory developments that could hurt P&G brands.
For PepsiCo, the shop hired regional lobbyists and media relations pros to fight proposed bottling and franchise legislation at the state level-such as proposed new taxes.
Combined with its specialties in public relations and event planning, the government affairs work makes up a modest but profitable 10-15 percent of the shop's revenue.
Utility company Sierra Pacific Resources and Columbia Sunrise Hospital are among R&R's key nongaming clients. In the Internet arena, the shop replaced a travel dot-com it won and lost last year with a larger client, a Vegas-based commercial real estate site, due to launch this summer. As a testament to the power of personal connections, the agency picked up practically all this business without participating in reviews and with four owners who had no previous agency experience. As it matures, the shop is dedicating executives to new business, account planning, brand strategy and other disciplines.
Such an atypical agency history could go a long way toward explaining last year's unconventional review for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority account. R&R officials had been chafing under criticism that their work didn't reflect an evolving, sophisticated Vegas identity. Trendy new resorts such as the Bellagio and the Venetian have been pushing for a more adult image. So, at the agency's request, the client invited other shops to make presentations before awarding the next five-year ad and marketing contract.
Semifinalists who researched the pitch quickly learned R&R was the clear favorite. The shops that stayed in--Colby Effler & Partners, Santa Monica, Calif., and Young & Rubicam, San Francisco, pitching with The Merica Agency, Las Vegas--thought the exposure from the televised event would help them keep and attract work from other Vegas clients. In front of the tourism board, local press and city leaders, R&R outdid itself with a rousing MTV-style video show emphasizing its account planning, strategic and research capabilities. It took the board only 10 minutes to renew R&R's contract.
"We proved to the world, and probably more importantly, we proved to ourselves that we could present and win," said Vassiliadis.
The shop has proven itself to its client, says Ross Ralenkotter, vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "They've been great at advertising that stimulates demand. Now they are using research and trend analysis for our new approach in marketing 'Brand Las Vegas,' " says Ralenkotter.
Randy Snow, vice president and creative director, knows the agency must expand its creative range to silence critics and impress prospects. Snow runs his youthful department in an office space called Area 51, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the swath of Nevada desert 90 miles north of Las Vegas that's home to a secret U.S. military facility and associated with UFO and
Self-deprecating, with a devilish sense of humor, Snow, 45, has worked in Nevada his whole career, much of it at R&R. His favorite ads are the ones "that get us into trouble," he says, such as the one that used a look-alike Queen of England playing craps in a casino to promote Virgin Airlines' new flights to Vegas. When Time ran a cover story last fall about people planning to stay home for New Year's Eve, the shop shot off a tourism ad showing the magazine cover next to the headline, "Are you going to stand for this?"
"We've done our share of stereotypical casino TV spots, because that is the nature of the clients," Snow says. But the work shows glimmers of big-city style and attitude. In the current campaign, rock music and sharp editing jazz up colorful images of resort buildings, restaurants and casino shows. Past ads have focused on promoting a lineup of extravagant new casino properties. But building slowed this year, and the next step for creative is to become more brand oriented. Sources say the ads in development are funny, irreverent and tap into the urge to escape from everyday routines. Some of the work even projects a defiant, anti-authority attitude. If approved, it likely will run in the fourth quarter.
"It's time to communicate the emotions and the adrenaline rush of being here," says Snow. "Vegas is a rock-and-rolling place. It really is a state of mind." Which can be a drag, he admits, "when you're flying home dead tired after a long shoot and everybody on the plane has already started their Las Vegas weekend of debauchery."
The glitz capital also still has its seamy side. Last May, as Snow and the agency were preparing its "bold and brash" campaign for the visitors bureau, regional news reports were dominated by a controversial trial that followed the drug overdose death of Ted Binion, son of a powerful casino family. A secret lover of Binion's longtime girlfriend had been found digging up $7 million in silver that Binion had buried in the desert. They were both found guilty of murder.
Like creative directors across the country, finding talent is one of the more challenging aspects of Snow's job. "Ad schools say that grads don't take Las Vegas seriously as a place to do good work," he sighs. Occasionally the lure of the casinos is too great for new employees, who get caught up in the nightlife and burn out on the job. But the shop continues to beat the bushes for talented staffers, and Snow is striking up freelance alliances with seasoned creative teams in San Francisco and Los Angeles. What newcomers often like about Las Vegas is that it "is so open and not hypocritical," says King, the agency's CFO and a former banker. "After all, we made gambling and prostitution legal. It is what it is, and that can be refreshing. Anyone is welcome to come here and have a good time."
But the times may be changing. Vegas' wild casino industry is consolidating, and much of the business on the Strip is becoming impersonal and bureaucratic. "The vision and personality are gone," laments Vassiliadis. Longtimers quietly worry that with gambling available at Indian casinos, on riverboats and in a growing number of other venues, Vegas' glory days may be numbered. Already, gambling accounts for only 30-40 percent of the area's tourism revenue. Vassiliadis is convinced the town will continue to reinvent itself, as it did during the eras of Bugsy Siegel, Frank Sinatra and the wholesome circus era of the early '90s. Mele, who used to work in PR at Caesar's Palace, however, says the locals are always wary of the threat that Vegas could simply go out of fashion.
Agency brass also realize that for all the blood, sweat and compromise that have gone into the tourism work, the shop could match the revenue that account generates in a second with a well-financed dot-com or telecom client. From its Vegas hub, the shop is working to grow beyond gaming to become the dominant marketing force in the Intermountain West, the burgeoning area between California and the Midwest.
"We want to be GSD&M when we grow up," says Vassiliadis, referring to Omnicom's Austin, Texas, agency, which handles brands including Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart. R&R executives don't rule out one day being owned by a holding company, but realize such a day is far off. Instead, the shop is working to establish alliances with companies that have direct marketing, research, polling and international capabilities. Middle managers with agency experience have also been recruited from around the country by the promise of heightened responsibility, flexibility to work at any of R&R's offices, generous benefits and freedom to pursue their specialties.
But the fact remains that outside Nevada, practically no one has heard of R&R--which is where Tim Williams comes in. A former management consultant, agency CEO and group account director at Ogilvy & Mather, Williams joined R&R as president four months ago after a stint as agency consultant. Along with setting up traditional systems, Williams, based in Salt Lake City, is charged with getting the shop's name out in the world. Next up is a meeting with review consultants at Select Resources International.
Some things are certainly changing at R&R, but others remain the same. Executives hustle all over the country to drum up new clients, alliances and talent, but when the week closes, Vassiliadis still holds court in a neighborhood pub a few miles from the hordes of tourists feeding the slots. Sitting across from him is a native Las Vegan who admits as a kid she wanted to grow up to be a showgirl, but ended up as ad agency manager instead. "I'm still performing though," she says.
Between bottles of Coors Light, Vassiliadis and his crew hash out the job closest at hand--refining the image of a town that is nothing but image. "Face it, this is a city that gives people a place where sin is rewarded," says Vassiliadis. A few heads nod in agreement--that's what the work needs to say. "Sin," chuckles one. "We'll have to see what our Mormon board members have to say about that."
Selling sin. Sure it's a gamble. But if not in Vegas, then where?