Las Vegas Report

Vegas Part 3: The Ad Agency Behind the Catchphrase

R&R Partners' Struggle to Help Sin City Find Its Soul

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LAS VEGAS (AdAge.com) -- Two years ago, The New York Times declared Billy Vassiliadis, known to all here simply as "Billy V.," to be "the most powerful unelected person in Nevada."
Billy Vassiliadis is CEO of R&R Partners, Nevada's largest advertising agency.
Billy Vassiliadis is CEO of R&R Partners, Nevada's largest advertising agency.

Vassiliadis is not, as that distinction might imply, a throwback to the likes of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal (who was depicted by Robert DeNiro in "Casino"). He's the CEO of R&R Partners, the state's largest advertising agency, and has been the id of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority for more than 25 years.

Coining the ubiquitous catchphrase
It was a pair of R&R copywriters who coined "What happens here, stays here," the ubiquitous catchphrase that first granted visitors permission to (and now dares them to) keep spending money until they are transformed, temporarily, into wilder, crazier and, to hear Vassiliadis tell it, anesthetized versions of themselves.

It's impossible to explain the influence and importance of R&R in the context of headcount (240) or billings ($230 million in 2005) alone. Nevada state politics often is a game of six degrees of R&R principals (Vassiliadis himself is an irrepressible liberal), and the firm lists miners, ranchers, the police, power and water utilities, and a large swath of the Strip among its clients. More than any single agency in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, R&R effectively is Las Vegas.

I spent most of Tuesday camped out at the firm's offices hearing Vassiliadis' take on Vegas and amusing myself with the LVCVA team's next iteration on "WHHSH" and its multipronged approach going forward.

But first, a bit of background: The LVCVA pays for the branding of Vegas with a chunk of the taxes gleaned from every hotel room in the city, which means that R&R had $84.4 million to play with last year. That figure will only go up, with 43 million visitors expected in 2009 and around 56 million by 2015. With $30 billion in new tourism projects underway here and 40,000 additional rooms on various drawing boards, "it will be the biggest growth period, over a five-year span, in the history of Las Vegas," says LVCVA President Rossi Ralenkotter.

Search for a slogan
During the last big growth spurt in the early 1990s, when the Mirage, Luxor, MGM Grand and other behemoths were opening, R&R was still tinkering with the city's branding. The firm didn't hit upon WHHSH until 2002, after another decade's worth of "nipping around the edges," in Vassiliadis' words, with campaigns such as "The American Way to Play" and "Open 24 Hours." But this time around, things are different -- at one point, group account director Rob O'Keefe mused that WHHSH might have enough legs to last another decade.

"It was hard to reach consensus on branding because the product was changing so fast," Vassiliadis says. "But there were practical challenges we could not overcome to go straight to a branding message. When the world thought of dice clocks and 25-cent shrimp cocktails while Emeril [Lagasse] was opening his third restaurant, we would have been committing marketing malpractice if we hadn't focused on the product."

Complicating matters were the efforts of MGM Grand and Treasure Island (then owned by Steve Wynn) to portray themselves as family destinations, a low point in Vegas' branding efforts and one very much disowned by both the LVCVA and R&R. That said, they hadn't come up with much of an alternative by then. "We didn't own gaming anymore, we couldn't own dining and shopping, so what do we own?" Vassiliadis says. "That's when we went to the account planning and did an exhaustive study of the customer." And that's when R&R decided to bring the underlying currents of escapism to the surface.

'Emotional connection'
Why does Las Vegas exert a hypnotic pull on Americans? Clearly, the city has history on its side -- the "anything goes" atmosphere is about as constant as the 100-degree heat in summer -- but Vassiliadis detects darker undercurrents of fatalism and escapism, at one point offering: "I think that as long as George Bush is president, Americans are always going to be edgy enough to want to come to Las Vegas. There are people out there who want to hide from the rest of the world. And Vegas is the one place that offers that."

The particular genius of R&R's LVCVA team, which comprises roughly 35 people, has been to transform desperation into aspiration. In addition to the WHHSH TV spots (two more of which are due to break next month), there's the $5 million "Be Anyone" campaign, consisting of more TV spots, print ads in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue, and an online identity generator capable of creating fake business cards with real e-mail addresses and telephone numbers.

Vegas IQ
In general, R&R's approach going forward is to marry the heart of the branding campaign with the head in the form of raising potential visitors' "Vegas IQ," i.e., awareness of the city's product offering. The grail, of course, is creating an "emotional connection" with the target audience. But in the beginning, all the casino owners wanted were ads featuring their latest attempts at one-upmanship. "You're not going to show the star of my hotel?" Ralenkotter recalls one incredulous owner asking.

"What I learned from that," Vassiliadis says, "was to save the big fight for something that really matters, not arguing over how big the client's logo is. Every product, every service reaches a defining moment. And at that moment, be willing to risk and be willing to lose. If we'd continued to market the way we'd been marketing the city, it would have still been successful, but it would have relied on people making conscious decisions, rather than a true emotional connection."

Or in other words, be willing to gamble, which is all Las Vegas can really teach us, after all.
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