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An Out-of-State Ad Firm for Arkansas Tourism? Unlikely, but Possible

4 min read

Will the state of Arkansas award its biggest advertising contract to an out-of-state agency?

Little Rock marketing pros think probably not, but the idea isn’t inconceivable. Thirteen agencies submitted proposals for the nearly $15 million a year in marketing work for the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, including seven from beyond the state’s borders.

That’s the most out-of-state interest in recent memory, and certainly more than when the contract was last up for bids a dozen years ago. Firms from Dallas, San Antonio, New York, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Tallahassee, Florida, are in the running, and some have extensive experience in tourism campaigns.

One Arkansas bidder, Natalie Ghidotti of Ghidotti Communications, has teamed with an out-of-state partner, John Deveney of New Orleans, who has great experience luring visitors to Louisiana. Out-of-state firms with tourism chops include TM Advertising of Dallas, known for campaigns like “Texas, a whole other country,” and Birdsall Voss of Milwaukee, which works for the Wyoming Office of Tourism and the Maine Office of Tourism.

“It’s hard to imagine, though, that Arkansas would hand the account over to an out-of-state firm,” one Little Rock ad executive said, “mainly because they have a lot of qualified folks from inside the state.”

A crosstown rival agreed, but would never say never. “I wouldn’t be shocked if an out-of-state group came in with a knockout presentation to make the judges think,” he said on the condition of anonymity, noting that his agency didn’t bid on the work. “Some agencies specialize in one area, and they do it well.”

The state is looking for a single agency to handle what it had been splitting for nearly two decades between two Little Rock agencies, CJRW for “traditional” marketing and Aristotle Inc. for web and digital services.

CJRW, which is very much in the running, handled some $11.7 million annually in the previous contract. Aristotle, whose share was about $1.5 million a year, did not bid this time. The other Arkansas firms in the race are Mangan Holcomb Partners/Team SI, Cranford Co., Stone Ward and Rockfish Interactive.

An Arkansas advertising man who handicapped the odds said Aristotle’s digital focus probably kept it from competing for the full contract. He predicted that similar specialization might hamper Pandemic Labs of Boston, Advance 360 of New York and Rockfish Interactive.

“Blackboard Marketing of Cincinnati looks like a small, newer agency,” the ad insider said. “It’s not likely to make the cut” when the 13 firms are pared to three finalists for oral presentations.

He gave the best chances among outside agencies to Birdsall Voss and TM, formerly Temerlin McClain. “TM is a big shop out of Dallas, with clients like United Airlines and Universal Orlando. If you can do their stuff, you can handle the state of Arkansas. If either Birdsall Voss or TM present well, they could be dangerous.”

TM has a link to Arkansas. Founding partner Dennis McClain’s brother, Duncan McClain, spent six years as vice president of worldwide marketing for Acxiom in Little Rock, leaving the company in 2012.

Still, CJRW has the advantage, said the handicapping insider, who gave it a 70 percent edge. “First, they’ve done good work over the years, high-quality stuff. Plus, they’ve adjusted to the new reality at the end of Capitol Avenue.”

This was a reference to the change of leadership at the Capitol and the governor’s office, now in Republican control. “If it was still Shelby and Wayne [Woods] and the boys, I think they’d be toast. But now it’s Darin [Gray] and Gary [Heathcott] and the boys and girls, and they’ve kept plenty of institutional memory and knowledge to make it work.”

Stone Ward and Mangan have an equal but far lesser shot, he predicted.

Arkansas’ traditional tourism targets have been travelers within a day’s drive of the state, from Chicago south to New Orleans and from Nashville west to a line extending from Oklahoma City to Austin, Texas. But state officials, citing newer attractions like the Clinton Center, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess (Mississippi County), believe the time may be right to expand their target range.

“While international promotion has not been a priority of the department, the staff feels that the timing is finally right to make some initial forays into this complex and competitive arena,” the state said in its bid solicitation.

In other words, the new marketers may be trying to hook travelers from Paris, France, as well as Paris, Texas.

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