Small Agency of the Year, 1-10 Employees, Silver: Tattoo Projects

Shop Makes Its Mark by Pushing Clients to Take Risks and Staying Commitment-Free

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Tattoo Projects is not into commitment, preferring projects for a flat fee vs. a long-term relationship on contract. Or as the 10-person Charlotte-based creative agency says, it wants to date, not get married. "We like our clients to always want to come back after us," said co-owner Buffy McCoy Kelly. "We love just a good one-night stand with our clients. We come in and we show them a really, really good time."

Tatoo go-kart racing crew
Tatoo go-kart racing crew

It may sound like little more than the spin of a feisty, young and hungry agency, but Ms. McCoy Kelly and co-owner Rudolph Banny swear they mean it. Indeed, they cringed when one client, Hoover, sent out a press release announcing Tattoo as its agency of record. "We never signed a contract. We just said we'll just keep it going on a project basis," Mr. Banny said. And the vacuum maker is apparently pleased, sticking with the agency for nearly two years now.

Other big clients include University of North Carolina at Charlotte -- which because of university rules was forced to sign a three-year contract with Tattoo -- and Sheetz convenience-store chain. Tattoo also has worked for the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, including a recent campaign in which it outfitted a team of models with Dale-like push-broom mustaches and sunglasses to drum up support at Mr. Earnhardt's posthumous induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

The work: Sheetz feel the love ad
The work: Sheetz feel the love ad
Ms. Kelly, who says she grew up "in about as hillbilly a place as you can get" in Kentucky, and Mr. Banny, a Chicago native, founded the agency in 2006, after leaving top creative jobs at Pennsylvania-based Neiman Group. "We said we can do this better, and so we left and started everything based on creative being king," Ms. Kelly said. The agency's philosophy is to push clients to take risks. Yet because most of its work is in conservative, old-school categories that cater to Middle America, Tattoo tries to keep it pragmatic.

"Half the time I feel like we're marketing to our sisters and brothers and our mothers and fathers vs. the hip, cool, young 18-year-old dudes that tend to drive the more edgy popular stuff," Mr. Banny said. We have to "hit in the middle."

Consider its recent work for Hoover's FloorMate, which vacuums, scrubs and dries hard floors. Tattoo reached out to women who preferred old fashioned hands-and-knees floor scrubbing. The agency visited the homes of women who responded to an open casting call, allowing them to first clean their floors their way, and then clean the same floor with the FloorMate. Each time, the Hoover got more dirt off the floor, with the results verified by a notary public. The visits were filmed documentary-style and the campaign was supported with a microsite, in-store marketing and TV spots. In just five months, Hoover increased sales four-fold, to 40,000 units a week, Tattoo said.

"We probably increased their sales more than they've increased their sales on any product as far as we know in the history of Hoover," Mr. Banny said.

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