Join the Club. Please

The San Francisco Advertising Club, nearly a century old, was feeling its age. No longer was it attracting 1,000 people to its lunch eons. Lectures drew yawns, and enthusiasm for the awards show was waning. Membership was about 600, but there was so little participation in the club, says Jim Magill, its former president, that “some of them could have been dead for all I know.”

The club closed in January under the weight of a “triple whammy,” as Magill refers to the tech fallout, the effects of 9/11 on the local economy and the subsequent shuttering of shops including Lowe and Saatchi & Saatchi. While the San Francisco market has suffered more than most, ad clubs across the country are struggling to stir interest in what were once thriving organizations. As memberships drop, largely due to agency cutbacks and consolidation, the clubs have been forced to become more proactive.

This month The One Club, the sponsor of The One Show, breaks a 90-second infomercial-style spot on the Web that features Satan, “a leading career-advancement pro vider,” and testimonials from satisfied customers. It’s a follow-up to a print and direct-mail effort launched in Octo ber that aims to draw members from outside The One Club’s core New York market. Created by McKin ney + Silver in Raleigh, N.C., the campaign compares two methods of getting ahead in the ad industry: joining the club or making a deal with the devil.

“You have to have a little levity in these dark days,” says Mary Warlick, executive director of The One Club, noting that this is the first membership drive since she started there more than a decade ago. Membership currently stands at 800; Warlick would not provide past numbers.

At the Advertising Club of New York, membership is down to 1,400 from the 2,000 figure listed in the Standard Directory of Adver tising Agencies two years ago. The drop spurred a print campaign launched in the spring that asks, “Are you in yet?,” the first advertising since the club’s centennial drive in 1996. Executive director Gina Grillo is also making personal appeals, visiting newly installed executives and companies unfamiliar with the programs.

In July, the Art Directors Club in New York rebranded itself the ADC in an effort to show that it addresses the full spectrum of visual communica tions, says executive director Myrna Davis. Membership, at 1,200, is down from the 1,350 listed in the directory.

“Some people’s reason for not renewing was financial … they lost their job,” Davis says. “But some people feel that’s precisely when they need an organization.” New marketing materials early next year will be followed by a membership drive.

Elsewhere, the Ad Federation of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where the local Art Directors and Copywriters Club folded two years ago, recently initiated efforts to attract more creatives. The Kansas City Advertising Club is cutting internal expenses so that it can keep costs down for luncheons and seminars.

But while club events like panel discussions can bring smaller shops inval uable attention, creatives at bigger-name agencies don’t consider them a must. “I inevitably never have time to do these kinds of things,” says Kevin McKeon, executive creative director at New York’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who advises ad clubs to provide more outlets for meeting potential clients. “My incentive [to attend] will always be about good exposure for the agency.”

For his part, Magill hasn’t given up on resurrecting a San Francisco club. In September, the International Advertising Association, working with Foote, Cone & Belding, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Publicis & Hal Riney, put on “The Best of San Francisco Show.” More than 400 people came to see work from 22 shops.

“There was no judging, just a great party,” says Magill. “It showed what that part of the market really wants.”

Seeing work—and being seen—will always remain vital, agrees Ron Lawner, chief creative officer at Arnold in Boston: “Clubs do a pretty good job reminding us even in the tough economies what we’re all in this for, and that’s to do some great work. For that I think they are still meaningful.”

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