Small Agency 2010

Small Agency of the Year, Southwest: Firehouse

Insight-Driven Brand Work Combining Public Relations, Media Planning, Consumer Research Distinguishes Firm

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NEW YORK ( -- When Mark Hall was seeking a competitive advantage for his Dallas-based advertising agency Firehouse, he decided to buck the industry trend of the past two decades. While unbundled services and increased specialization is the norm at other agencies, Hall went for the opposite approach and added media planning and public relations to his creative offering.

"Lots of agencies have great creative work," said Mr. Hall, president and founder of Firehouse. "What would really differentiates [us] is better planning and insights because a lot of agencies present observations as though they are insights."

Firehouse's recent campaign for car battery brand Interstate lifted sales and increased consumer awareness.
Firehouse's recent campaign for car battery brand Interstate lifted sales and increased consumer awareness.

The difference, according to Firehouse, is that observations are usually just a single point of data, while insights are built on many, and go beyond merely describing what is happening. Under the leadership of Steve Smith, head of the planning department, Firehouse weaves media planning, PR and consumer research into all its brand work.

Mr. Smith said a recent campaign with car battery brand Interstate Batteries is a good example of the agency's insight-driven work. Traditionally, Interstate grew its brand talking to men aged 25-54 with a "do it yourself" mentality. Firehouse realized that this was limiting the audience since women played an increasing role in decisions about the car, and 18% of men and 35% of women reported doing no self-maintenance on their cars at all. Firehouse identified a new target audience: people with a "do it for me" mindset who put a premium on dependability.

As well as executions on TV, radio and online, the outdoor element of the campaign challenged consumer perceptions about when they should be paying attention to the car battery. "Summer heat is as bad for batteries as winter cold but people always think of cold," Mr. Smith said. "We went to major ballparks and brought in tons of snow to get people to consider summer heat and batteries by way of winter cold." The media budget in 2009 was the same as the year before, but Interstate saw a 4% lift in unit sales, with record months in December 2009 and January 2010, and a 5% gain in consumer awareness.

A Dr Pepper campaign with Carl's Jr and Hardee's used online media and radio to target men aged 18 to 34 with the lure of the 2010 Chevy Camaro as a sweepstakes prize. The media budget was only $100,000 nationwide, yet the promotion managed to lift sales at the restaurants by 8%.

The integrated approach has helped Firehouse thrive in the economic downturn. Head count now stands at 30, up from 18 three years ago. Billings, including the cost of the media, stood at $38 million in 2009. Meanwhile, agency revenue was $4.2 million, up from $3.85 million in 2008 and $2.6 million in 2007.

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