HOUSTON BATTLES EXODUS OF AD AGENICES AND TALENT

Prepares Major Advertising Campaign to Showcase Remaining Shops

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HOUSTON (AdAge.com) -- Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., with the Census Bureau pegging its population at slightly over 2 million. But it’s the 18th largest ad market, much to the dismay of local marketing executives,
Houston, which lost a string of its biggest and most prestigious advertising agencies and marketing clients, is now hoping to revive its marketing services industry with a promotional campaign.
who say companies looking for advertising and production support view Houston as little more than an afterthought -- a quaint suburban hamlet in the shadow of creative metropolises like Miami or Portland, Ore.

Even though it headquarters more Fortune 500 companies than any city except New York, few of those have tapped local agencies as their primary ad partner. That’s caused an exodus of agencies -- and talent.

'A major hit'
“We’ve taken a major hit,” Lou Congelio, president of Stan & Lou Advertising, told his local brethren at a Houston Advertising Federation luncheon last week. “McCann is gone. Ogilvy is gone. BBDO is gone. Bates is gone. NW Ayer. And when they left, so did their clients, one way or another. Exxon. Texas Instruments. Texaco. Six Flags. Compaq. The list goes on.”

Yes, Houston has a problem -- and it also thinks it has a solution. The town’s newly feisty marketing and production communities hope to exterminate the perception of the city as an also-ran with “Only in Houston,” a campaign designed to call attention to what its boosters believe is a vibrant creative community. The push is thought to be the first of its kind from a major U.S. city’s marketing community and is being conducted entirely pro bono.

“If we don’t do it now, we might not have a chance to do it tomorrow,” said Mr. Congelio, the driving force behind the campaign.

A Web site showcases the best work from Houston agencies and presents a glut of directory information. Starting early next month, the effort kicks into full gear with ads in a range of local publications (Houston Chronicle, Houston Business Journal) and on billboards and radio stations.

Level the playing field
The campaign’s backers aren’t going into it with unrealistic expectations; nobody believes that marketing-averse local behemoths like ConocoPhillips or Marathon Oil will log onto the Web site and be blinded by a sudden creative flash. Their primary hope? That “Only in Houston” will level the playing field.

“We don’t want anything handed to us,” stressed Erin Williams, owner of modeling firm Millennia Models and talent shop Williams Talent. “If you give everybody a fair shot and the other guy’s better, fine. But we’re not even getting invited to bid on projects or submit our ideas.”

In attempting to unify and rally Houston’s creative and production communities, Mr. Congelio comes across as part cheerleader, part salesman. He alternates between grandiose pronouncements (“imagine if Houston was the next Minneapolis”) and frank assessments of the local marketing and production landscapes (“I’m hurting. We’re all hurting.”).

His approach occasionally veers into the realm of the unconventional. In a speech last year to the local ad club, Mr. Congelio implored attendees to check out an early version of onlyinhouston.com thusly: “Go home tonight, pour yourself a nice stiff scotch, a glass of wine, an ice-cold Shiner Bock, or roll yourself a nice big fat one, and check out the site. I guarantee that you will be amazed at the quality of work that you see.”

'Need a dictator'
Reminded of this, Mr. Congelio laughed. “We tried the lead-by-committee thing and found out that’s good for getting the facts. To get things done, you need a dictator. I’m the guy who will take the arrows in the back.”

The Houston community seems stalwart in its support of its dictator ... er, leader ... and the campaign itself; to a person, they recite the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats mantra. “It’s an activity we can all rally around,” said Bill Fogarty, principal and founder, co-CEO of Fogarty Klein Monroe, the largest Houston-based marketing shop with around $264 million in annual billings.

So will the campaign succeed in restoring the city’s marketing and production cred? At least one recruiter isn’t entirely swayed. While prefacing his remarks by noting that his work is concentrated in the Southeast and Midwest, T.K. Sutphin & Associates President Kem Sutphin questioned the town’s track record. “Seven or eight years ago, there was some activity there, but can you give me the name of a single agency in the Houston market that’s creating a stir right now?”

Dallas dwarfs Houston
Jadey Ryndak, regional manager of marketing recruiter Paladin, offered a slightly more upbeat assessment: “There’s a lot of quality talent there, but Dallas has kind of dwarfed Houston as the ad center of Texas.” She noted how one of the awareness-building activities of Houston-based firms–entering its work for consideration in Dallas-area contests -- has recently worked against them. “The talent gets exposed, so to speak, and then the best people get whisked out of town.”

Persuading Houston’s corporate giants to steer business their way -- 20 Fortune 500 companies call the city home -- could prove the headier task. Reliant Energy, the city’s ninth-biggest business, employs López Negrete for Hispanic marketing and Direct Marketing Network for direct-mail. Its primary ad agency, though, is the Dallas-based Richards Group, which was hired when electricity deregulation hit Texas in 2002.

Thanks, but no thanks
“For the first time, we were offering service outside the Houston area,” said Pat Hammond, manager-corporate communications for Reliant Energy. “We felt that hiring a firm based in [North Texas] would help us establish our brand in this new community.”

She stressed, of course, that Houston “has some incredible talent and some very strong firms” -- exactly the type of pat on the back Mr. Congelio and his consorts don’t want unless it comes with the promise of creative or production work.

“To be the fourth-biggest city in the nation and be so far down the ladder in terms of advertising and production, it’s embarrassing,” Ms. Williams said. “When somebody wants a kick-ass campaign, this isn’t the market they’re drawn to. We have to get people to see for themselves what we can do before we turn that around.”

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