The Ride’s Far From Over At Ackerman McQueen

For Ackerman McQueen, the past 10 months have been, appropriately enough, a real roller coaster.

The 68-year-old independent lost its biggest client, Six Flags of America, and a quarter of its billings in October; won the Grand Effie in June; and, under a new president, is in the process of shifting its headquarters from Oklahoma City to Dallas in an effort to increase its new-business opportunities. The transition will take place over two years—61 employees now work out of the Oklahoma City office, twice as many as Dallas—but the agency’s focus has already shifted, said new president David Lipson.

“Dallas and San Francisco are really going to be the epicenters of the agency,” said Lipson, 37, who in June was promoted from managing director to president and heir apparent to CEO Angus McQueen.

Lipson, who joined the shop after graduating from the University of Missouri 14 years ago, “is much closer to what I would want in a leader of the agency than anyone else I can imagine,” said McQueen, 59.

McQueen added that he plans to devote most of his time to the Mercury Group, an AM unit in Washington that specializes in crisis management and political issues. In June, he gave up his chairman’s title to Ed Martin, who had been president.

The new management’s task is a daunting one: Rebuild a shop that lost a financial cornerstone when hometown client Six Flags ditched it for independent Doner in Southfield, Mich., last fall after a nine-year run.

“Any agency that loses [that much of] its billings loses a lot of momentum,” said Pete Bogda, president of search consultancy Achenbaum/Bogda in Dallas. “When we do searches, and we see that they’re losing ground, that’s not a good sign.”

During AM’s tenure on the Six Flags business, the amusement-park chain grew from three parks to 39 while media billings fattened from $300,000 to $70 million. Lipson said the agency, whose billings peaked last year at $280 million, had urged Six Flags to spend less on advertising and more on improving its parks, which led to a review. A Six Flags representative could not be reached.

About 35 employees were laid off as a result of the loss. The shop estimates its billings now at $210 million, buoyed by a couple of smaller new-business wins, including the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers and Big Boing Toys, a Sausalito, Calif., startup run by a former executive with AM client LeapFrog Enterprises.

It was the agency’s work for LeapFrog, a manufacturer of educational toys, that gave it a much-needed emotional lift on June 8, when the shop was named winner of the Grand Effie by the New York American Marketing Association. AM has been with LeapFrog since the company launched in 1995, when a mutual friend steered LeapFrog founder Mike Wood, a California attorney, to the agency.

“I thought we would just do a couple of spec ads, and that would be it,” Lipson said. “But the more we learned about LeapFrog, the more certain we became that it would be a big success.”

In marketing LeapFrog’s line of educational toys, the agency aimed advertising not at the kids but the parents, seeking to link the products to parental hopes and aspirations while using the tagline, “Learn something new every day.”

The growth of LeapFrog from a startup to the world’s third-largest toy maker behind Mattel and Hasbro—LeapFrog claimed 2003 sales of $680 million from more than 100 interactive learning toys—captured the attention of the Effies judges. Calling the client-agency alliance “a bit of David and Goliath,” NYAMA president Gene Dunkin said LeapFrog’s success “can be attributed in part to a smart advertising campaign that produced great results.”

“The campaign itself, the materials we used were so steeped in the psyches of the people who use the products,” Lipson said. “And it’s not the children who are the targets—it’s the parents, the grandparents. There are all these emotions just swirling around, but at the end of the day, all you care about is what’s best for your children.”

In one of the TV spots submitted for the Effies, a little girl receives packages from her grandfather, each one a new step in the LeapPad Phonics program. “Learning to read has never been more fun,” the voiceover says as the girl learns words like “fisherman” and “whales” with the help of the LeapFrog phonetic voice.

The campaign included consumer magazines, direct mail, point-of-purchase promotions, public relations, sales promotion, trade and online work.

To support LeapFrog’s push into the European market, AM is maintaining the London office it opened in 2000 for Six Flags. Similarly, AM is boosting its San Francisco office, not only for Emeryville, Calif.-based LeapFrog, but also because the shop wants to capitalize on a void in the area’s ad industry that was left by the dot-com bust.

The move to Dallas will strip Oklahoma of what had been its largest agency—and one that created the state license-plate design. AM once attempted to promote its “unorthodox geography” as “a blessing, forcing us to attack the business with a different set of disciplines,” according to the agency.

But Bogda said that is a hard sell when it comes to attracting clients. “Oklahoma City is not a favorite stop for many ad clients, and Dallas is,” he said. “I still don’t have many clients come to me and say, ‘We will go anywhere.’ “