The Unspoken Tourism Taboo: Why Accounts Should Sometimes Go to Out-of-State Agencies

Weighing familiarity against a fresh look

In late March, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation rolled out its new marketing campaign from what seemed like a dream team at the time: award-winning global ad agency Havas and famed I Heart NY designer Milton Glaser. But within a week of the campaign's release, Ocean State's natives revolted, arguing that the new tagline, "Rhode Island: Cooler and Warmer," and simplistic sailboat logo weren't a good fit for the state and should have been created by a local shop.

It didn't help matters that a promotional video mistakenly used images from Iceland. A few days later, the corporation's newly minted chief marketing officer, Betsy Wall, who had just joined from Massachusetts, resigned. 

Rhode Island's debacle serves as a cautionary tale for tourism marketers in an era of local pride and social-media soundoffs. Every choice, from the creative to the agency selected, is subject to scrutiny and can serve as a boon for a destination—or a spectacular backfire.  

"There are some that take the point of view that the agencies absolutely, positively have to be in our state because they need to understand the DNA of the experience here," explained Joanne Davis, president and CEO of New York-based Joanne Davis Consulting, which assists marketers with the agency search process. "There are others that take the point of view that says, 'As much as we'd like to [hire in-state], we want best-in-class. And if we feel we can find best-in-class, that may not be in our footprint. We have a responsibility to look beyond." 

Given that, working on a tourism campaign as an out-of-state agency can be a taboo subject, one that few agencies are inclined to speak about on the record. Even agencies that have had smooth, even successful campaign efforts—like Kansas City, Mo.-based VML and its work for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, or Milwaukee-based BVK and its work for the Wyoming Office of Tourism—declined to comment for this story.

In the current social-media climate, marketers have to contend with what vocal locals may want: a hometown agency and control of the campaign's narrative. But whether they can always deliver that while meeting the needs of the state campaign is up for debate. 

The case for hiring out of town

Not all states have a creative marketing hub with a bevy of ad agencies, making it that much more difficult to choose a local shop. Or, if there are agencies, they may not be capable of handling an account of their size. 

Also, several state marketers noted that an out-of-town perspective can actually be helpful when it comes to tourism work.

"Everyone is really proud of the state they're from … but sometimes it's nice to have that outsider input because that's who you're marketing to," said Chris Mickey, media and public relations manager for the Wyoming Office of Tourism. "You're not marketing to people who live in your state and are proud of it; you're marketing to people who may be interested in visiting one day or may not even know a single thing about your state."

Mickey added, "It really brings a nice, fresh perspective from these folks who are out of state because they know more of what an out-of-state consumer is looking for, what appeals to them. And that might not be what we know of Wyoming to be true ourselves." 

Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Marketing Tourism Campaign, which is run by 360i in New York, agreed. The city had worked with an in-state agency for several years but in 2012 wanted a fresh perspective and issued a request for proposals. "The out-of-town agencies, there were several that competed, [and what they offered] was the visitor perspective—what they would be looking for visiting the city," said Romig.

The key to a healthy out-of-state agency relationship is the onboarding process of that agency, according to Mickey. "BVK spent several weeks in the state getting to know the state, immersing themselves in the product knowledge," he said. "That way, based on that and the research, they're using the perspective of an outsider to go in and really do a great job with the campaign work. As long as you're really thorough with that on-boarding process, I think you're good. But I can see how it can be tough for some of these agencies to really immerse themselves."


The case for hiring local

Even though some agencies are able to draw from an outside perspective while immersing themselves in the local culture, that's not enough for some state tourism boards. For Visit Salt Lake, the appeal of face-to-face communication and community knowledge outweighs the pros of an out-of-state shop, according to Shawn Stinson, director of communications for Visit Salt Lake, which works with Salt Lake City-based shop Love Communications. 

"We have personal relationships [with our agency]," said Stinson. "We know the same people in the community, they know our selling points. … It's easier to convey whether or not we like a campaign idea in person, so we feel there are benefits to having an in-state agency." 

Angela White is marketing manager for the Nebraska Tourism Commission, which works with Omaha, Neb.-based Bailey Lauerman. She agreed that "the proximity is always helpful in terms of getting together," but she cautioned that "it's not make or break."

"It's about the work and the value they can bring to the table," White added.

Rhode Island kept its Milton Glaser logo but discarded the "Cooler and Warmer" tag. Getty Images/Milton Glaser

The case for a middle ground

As for Rhode Island, the state is now working on damage control. The Commerce Corporation there pulled the "Rhode Island: Cooler and Warmer" tagline—though it kept its nautical logo from Glaser—and hired Ocean State native Lara Salamano to serve as its new chief marketing officer.

The state retained Havas, which opened an office in Providence after it landed the business and is collecting feedback from locals on social media to inform the campaign moving forward, according to a spokeswoman for the agency. 

Salamano added that "these are campaigns meant to attract tourists from outside of Rhode Island, but I do think Rhode Islanders need to help tell that story and to frame that story."

For many city and state marketers, it seems that an agency's location ultimately comes second to the quality of the work.

"I feel for these directors of tourism in states that don't have a high propensity of agencies, because what are you going to sacrifice? Which objective becomes more important?" said Davis, the consultant. "Is it to get the best possible marketing and leave it to the marketing professionals to identify the fact that we might be able to market our state better if we selected an agency that is in a different market, versus that we can't have any backlash? I feel for them. It's a hard decision to make."

Read more about the tactics and trends reshaping the tourism industry in Adweek's Travel Marketing Report.

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