Inside the Ad Agency Helping Vegas Mourn -- and Plot Its Comeback

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Since 2003, Las Vegas has been defined by a five-word tagline encapsulating the mischievous mystique of the nation's adult playground: "What Happens Here Stays Here." But within minutes of hearing about the mass shooting that terrorized the city on Oct. 1, the man who runs the ad agency behind the slogan knew it had to come down. Immediately.

It was "completely inappropriate," says Billy Vassiliadis, CEO of R&R Partners, the longtime agency for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. So he and more than a dozen agency staffers rushed to the agency's suburban Las Vegas office that Sunday night, pulling the campaign and formulating a more appropriate message to capture the city's grief and resolve.

The quick media, advertising and PR moves made by the agency by no means compare to the heroic actions taken by police officers and first responders who jumped into harm's way amid what turned out to be the worst mass-shooting in modern U.S history. But from a business perspective, the agency's actions spared the city's tourism industry from potential embarrassment and created emotional bonds bridging locals and the millions of tourists who fuel the Vegas economy.

What will happen to 'What Happens?'
The campaign, called "VegasStrong," borrows the same hashtag used by other disaster-stricken cities, starting with the "BostonStrong" moniker that spread in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Last year, "OrlandoStrong" was popularized after the nightclub shooting.

It is sadly telling that mass shootings happen so frequently in this country that cities are essentially recirculating recovery campaign slogans. R&R Partners took its cues from social media content that began appearing almost immediately after news of the Vegas shooting broke.

"At one point I said 'I'd like to come up with something unique to us' and my social team said there is so much content out there we would lose if we [did]," Vassiliadis said in an interview this week from R&R Partners' Vegas office, which sits in a quiet suburb about 20 minutes from the Strip.

On Monday afternoon, more than a dozen staffers huddled in an agency conference room that has served as a command center. From there they have worked long hours, plotting messaging and responding to incorrect information that spread online, especially in the first few hours after the shooting. "I mean there was just rumors and stuff flying like crazy," Vassiliadis says, including speculation that there was more than one shooter. "And so we were debunking those."

Staffers at R&R Partners huddle in the agency's command center.
Staffers at R&R Partners huddle in the agency's command center. Credit: R&R Partners

As for the "What Happens Here" campaign, he promised that "it will be back when it's appropriate, when we think the tone is right. Not too long, a couple months probably."

The new campaign started with a humble message that the casinos and hotels lining the Vegas strip are still flashing on their marquees. Against a black backdrop, it reads: "We've been there for you during the good times. Thank you for being there for us now."

Arnie DiGeorge, the agency's executive creative director, said the copy was inspired by the fact that "people have seen us at our best and the've had a great time with us and they love us." Now, "they are showing us that kind of love."

On the Wednesday after the shooting, the first #VegasStrong video debuted. It features a voiceover by Las Vegas native Andre Agassi and pays tribute to first responders, medics and surgeons, police and local businesses that rushed to pitch in the wake of the shooting. The spot aired during "Thursday Night Football" on CBS.

The campaign has been amplified by donated media. Clear Channel donated over 1,000 outdoor billboards across the country. National Cinemedia gave theater ad space, according to R&R Partners. Ads are also running in Times Square, including copy stating "What Happens Here Will Not Stop Us," via a donation from out-of-home ad company Branded Cities.

On Tuesday of this week, R&R Partners released new video (at top) based on user-generated social media content, including one woman pledging that "No one and nothing will stop me from going to Vegas."

It's personal
"We just want to make sure that the city comes out of this and gets back to some sort of normal," DiGeorge says. "It's less of a marketing thing and more of a just trying to have everybody understand." He adds: "People are saying such great things, and saying how they are coming back. So instead of us saying it, we are going to let the public say it."

R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis at his office this week, wearing a VegasStrong shirt his agency designed.
R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis at his office this week, wearing a VegasStrong shirt his agency designed. Credit: E.J. Schultz

For the agency, the campaign is personal. DiGeorge is a lifelong Vegas resident, whose dad was a craps dealer. Vassiliadis, 61, known around town as "Billy V," was born in Greece, raised in Chicago, came to Vegas for college and hasn't left since. He started working at R&R in 1983, and with another partner bought the agency in 1994 from founder Sig Rogich. The agency now has nine officers in cities including Los Angeles and Mexico City but its heartbeat is in Vegas. Vassiliadis, who worked for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Nevada, made the Las Vegas Review Journal's 2011 "Who's got the juice" list of local residents with clout.

The agency does pro bono work for the Vegas police department and counts a local ambulance service as a client. "We knew the officers who were responding to the scene," Vassiliadis says. "We are just staked personally. These are our friends. These are our family."

Vassiliadis suspects that some visitors might stay away for a short period of time because "people by religious upbringing, by culture, or just by instinct [and] intuition respect what that they believe to be some grieving period. It could be a week. It could be 10 days." He adds: "I don't think we are going to be super down, but I think there is going to be a little bit of a softening."

'We love it here'
Last year Vegas drew nearly 43 million visitors, setting a record, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Rossi Ralenkotter, CEO of the authority, did not share cancellation figures for the days after the shooting but said "it hasn't been very many."

Previously planned big conventions have proceeded as normal, including the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which packed Caesar's Palace this week with some 4,000 beer distributors and suppliers from across the country for its annual convention and trade show. The group dimmed the lights and observed a moment of silence when it kicked off formal proceedings on Monday morning. But beyond that, it was business as usual. On Sunday night, the group hosted an '80s-themed poolside party filled with food, music, and of course, beer.

Tourists checking in at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Tourists checking in at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Credit: E.J. Schultz

Along the Strip, tourists seem mostly unfazed, including Tim Mowler of Germany, who was making his first trip to Vegas for four-days as part of a U.S. swing. "It's quite impressive," he said of Vegas after starring at the iconic roaring fountains in front of the Bellagio. He was confident that security measures would be increased, he said, although he suggested that the U.S. tighten its gun laws.

Crystal McDonald of Missouri was not deterred either. She and a group of friends were staying the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the same property from which gunman Stephen Paddock fired from down into the country music festival across the street.

The windows from where he shot were still visible a week after the shooting. They had coverings meant to blend in with the goldish color of the rest of the property, but they still drew upward gazes from a gaggle of tourists below who snapped photos. The sidewalk outside the hotel was oddly quiet for Vegas standards, and a steady stream of people visited a makeshift memorial at a nearby intersection covered with candles, stuffed animals and flowers.

McDonald booked her reservation two months ago for her third trip to Vegas in 10 months. "We love it here," she said. "Nothing would keep us from here."

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