Tourism Pitch: Arkansas, You Run Deep in CJRW

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, May. 15, 2017 12:00 am   3 min read

CJRW played up its Arkansas roots inside its 220-page proposal to market the state's department of parks and tourism. (CJRW)

Did you have any idea that 54 percent of employees at CJRW have had an Arkansas fishing license?

Or that 51 percent of the workers at the Little Rock marketing firm have owned a kayak, boat or canoe?

And just guess how many got married in Arkansas. All is revealed in the unredacted parts of CJRW’s proposal for promoting Arkansas parks and tourism.

As widely anticipated, CJRW kept its hold on the state’s largest marketing contract, a $15.2 million-a-year job of providing all advertising services, “traditional” and digital, for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.

CJRW has worked for Parks & Tourism for well over 40 years, and its pitch emphasized the home-field advantage. Along with plenty of Arkansas-centric workforce details like those above, it highlighted dozens of pictures of employees and their loved ones enjoying Arkansas parks, lakes and attractions.

(By the way, 71 percent of the firm’s people were married in Arkansas, a nugget illustrated by an image of company President Jill Joslin in her wedding dress at the State Capitol.)

Much of the red meat was redacted from CJRW’s 210-page written submission, including specific strategies and the names of any subcontractors. But the intangibles may have boosted it over the other two finalists, Birdsall Voss & Associates of Milwaukee, known as BVK, and D&G Collaborative, the union of Natalie Ghidotti of Little Rock and John Deveney of New Orleans.

CJRW faced a no-win PR situation. Had it lost the tourism account, the narrative in Arkansas’ competitive advertising world would have been “big firm with all the advantages loses longtime state contract.” In winning, it faces this mindset: “Big firm with political connections triumphs; what else is new?”

There’s no doubt that the announcement carried no surprise. But you can’t fault CJRW’s flaunting its Arkansas bona fides. There’s founder and Chairman Emeritus Shelby Woods pictured bicycling in Bentonville. Brian Clark, the tourism account’s senior strategist, enjoys a beverage at Beaver Lake. Creative director Wade McCune and his photogenic family beam at Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine. Gary Heathcott admires a mess of fish he hooked at Lake Ouachita. Lauren Euseppi, Elizabeth Michael, Drew Harris and friends ply the Buffalo River.

As one veteran Little Rock ad man said, a judging panel made up largely of parks department and parks commission officials was never likely to pick an out-of-state firm, though seven were among the 13 agencies in the running.

BVK, which submitted a 148-page unredacted proposal, was ready to commit 40 employees to the account and to open an office in Arkansas. But it seemed to acknowledge it was fighting uphill. “Nearly 75% of BVK’s business is not physically located near a BVK office and that’s the case for 100% of our DMO [destination marketing organization] clients,” it said. “This approach has served BVK and our clients very well.”

Birdsall was only slightly behind after written proposals but fell far back after oral presentations, winning just 46 points in the second phase to 76 points by D&G Collaborative and 101 points to CJRW.

Some advertising pros groused about cronyism favoring CJRW, and anonymous comments on the Arkansas Business website suggested that the fix was in. The state would be better served by a more diverse group of judges, several commenters said, and one noted that Parks & Tourism Director Kane Webb was appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is said to be close to CJRW’s leadership.

Still, a partner at a competing firm, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said CJRW was also a logical choice, experienced and well-equipped to handle a big account. “They’re probably the biggest firm in town, they have a lot of skilled people, and they’ve been doing this work for years. It’s only natural that the state would want an in-state vendor, too. In all fairness, some shops couldn’t take over that account without doing a lot of hiring and transition. CJRW can do it seamlessly.”

On the other hand, the state’s behind-closed-doors procurement process feeds doubt and speculation, another ad man said. “I don’t know why it’s done that way. They talk about transparency, then do things like block the oral pitches from public view. The presentations used to be public, so why the change?”



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