"I call my company Big Fat because I'm big and I'm fat. I'm a Jewish gangster," said Jonathan Ressler, CEO of Big Fat, a small marketing company no one ever heard of until last week, when his "undercover advertising" services hit The New York Times Magazine, Business Week and local TV news. Big Fat pays shills to chatter about brand-name drinks in bars, spreading ad messages covertly, by word of mouth. Madison Avenue was buzzing about it. The Federal Trade Commission was crying foul.
Jonathan is from Wayne, N.J.-Soprano territory. He's got Joisey style down, and he's practicing without a license. He has no marketing degree. He comes to the profession from the barroom. Jonathan and his brother Jimmy owned 10 saloons in the metropolitan area with names like Cheyenne Social Club, Delta House, Caddy Shack, Aces Eight, Juniors Honky Tonk Cafe and Rock Ridge Saloon. "They were basically knock-down, drag-out drinking bars," says Jonathan. "I like to call them vomitoriums. If hip was a disease, I was the cure. Our slogan was, `shut up and drink,' and we meant it. What I didn't realize at the time was that was a precursor to my marketing career. I learned how to influence people."
Running bars put Jonathan in direct contact with consumers, his customers. He didn't need a degree to know how to read them. "I was with people 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I saw how they reacted to things. I knew what they wanted. We were marketers and didn't know it. I took that mentality to Big Fat. We're not all caught up in numbers, in CPMs, we don't analyze statistics. We do this really scientific thing. ... We talk to people, and we listen to what they say. That usually gives you all the answers you need."
Jonathan and Jimmy eventually unloaded the bars. "We sold out," says Jonathan. "And I mean we sold out." Jimmy retired at age 26 and moved to Colorado. Jonathan launched Ressler Marketing Group in 1996. His clients were NFL Enterprises, the NBA and MTV. He sold out to Aspen Marketing Group and then worked briefly at Omnicom's TLP. "I wasn't in hell, but I could see it from there," he says. And finally he opened up Big Fat in 1999. His current client list includes Pepsi, Nintendo, Nestle, Evian, Volvic, USA Networks and W magazine. He employs 25 in the New York office, and 45 full-time local market managers in 30 U.S. cities. Big Fat also hires thousands of freelance moles across the country to talk "undercover" about brands, from club bouncers to soccer moms.
"We're fringe right now. We're not part of the big agency world," says Jonathan. "What we do is not illegal; all we do is present information to people from a different channel. We do real-life product placement."
The other night, Jonathan's wife asked him to go see "The Anniversary Party." "I'd never see that in a million years. It's an art film. No way." But his wife was persistent. She heard it was shot in two weeks on a digital camera. "Bang, that's all I needed to hear," says Jonathan, who went to the movie, loved it and told his friends about it. "My wife telling me about the shoot, that probably caused hundreds of people to go out and see it. That's how Big Fat works." Is his wife on the payroll? "No," he says. Is he sure? "As a matter of fact, I don't know, maybe she is."
Now that's deep cover.
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