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CJRW Again? Little Rock Firm Likely to Keep State Tourism Account

5 min read

A $26 million-a-year series of contracts for advertising Arkansas tourism appeared headed to five-decade vendor CJRW of Little Rock last week despite serious misgivings from some state lawmakers.

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s Review Subcommittee on June 17 approved the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism’s decision to award the four contracts to CJRW. The firm has held some part of the state’s tourism marketing work for at least 45 years.

The Legislative Council was to take up the matter on Friday, after Arkansas Business’ print deadline. CJRW finished second to Miles Partnership of Florida in procurement scoring in three of the four contracts, a fact that led the Legislative Council to send the deal back to the subcommittee for review.

Sen. Mark Johnson, Sen. Missy Irvin and others questioned hiring CJRW for the marketing and PR work yet again, suggesting that the incumbent seemed predestined to keep the contracts.

But in testimony at the Capitol, Parks, Heritage & Tourism Secretary Shea Lewis said he brought no “preconceived notions” into the process. He said he actually assumed Miles Partnership would get the work, but had second thoughts about its staffing, access to talent and ability to meet the state’s goal of substantially building up tourism’s $9 billion annual economic impact in Arkansas.

Lewis told lawmakers that Miles employed “a more cookie-cutter approach” to branding, and said his department had negotiated deals with CJRW that brought the price of the firm’s services within $60,000 a year of Miles’ bids.

In the category of media planning and buying, Miles offered a bid of $14.29 million as opposed to CJRW’s $14.6 million (see table). In the advertising, marketing and social media category, CJRW’s $6.31 million bid was higher than Miles’ $6.09 million proposal. CJRW had the lowest bid in the public relations category, $3.3 million a year versus Ghidotti’s $3.51 million, but its website development and hosting bid of $1.64 million topped Miles’ $1.57 million bid.

Irvin, R-Mountain View, told Arkansas Business that the state’s request for proposal process should strictly favor the lowest qualified bidder. “The negotiations should be utilized to work through details, but not be a wholesale change, unless it becomes apparent that a vendor cannot deliver the services.”

(Office of State Procurement)

Irvin suggested that CJRW’s work over the years had become “stale” and had failed to entice the most visitors to attractions statewide.
CJRW has held the state tourism marketing contract since 1990, triumphing in new bidding every six or seven years. A predecessor firm, the Woods Brothers Agency, now the “W” in CJRW, held the tourism contract from 1979 to 1989. Woods Brothers and CJRW have published the Arkansas Tour Guide since 1967.

“Somehow we fell into a niche,” Woods Brothers co-founder Shelby Woods said in a 2017 interview. “All of our clients were in the tourism business.”

CJRW’s long run as the state’s tourism agency of record amazes and frustrates competitors.

Several spoke out, on the condition of anonymity, after the state announced its intention to award CJRW the most recent contracts. They cover three years of work with options for four additional years.

“Why even do [requests for proposals] if the winner is pre-selected regardless of how they stack up against their competitors,” one longtime Arkansas advertising executive said. “It makes folks like me not want to ever spend the time, money and resources responding to an RFP from the state.”

Another marketing veteran said it was “important to note that this narrative is … about a 50-year incumbent who was defeated through due process” in scoring by the Arkansas’ Office of State Procurement. A state spokeswoman said the office followed legal requirements, but the ad veteran disagreed.

“Given the high-stakes nature of this multimillion-dollar contract [worth $78 million over three years],” the state should ensure that the award “aligns with the outcome of the formal scoring process, rather than simply accepting a handpicked choice,” he said.

Coziness Alleged

Johnson, R-Ferndale, also questioned the integrity of the procurement process. He suggested that the state is too cozy with CJRW, or has left that perception, and felt that Lewis evaded questions about potential CJRW conflicts of interest. The firm represents tourism clients as well as the state, including Oaklawn and Visit Hot Springs.

Johnson also noted that before Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders named Dalaney Thomas as state tourism director in October, Thomas was an account manager at CJRW helping to oversee the Oaklawn account.

“I talked to people around the state who said [CJRW’s other tourism accounts] amount to a conflict of interest” that Lewis “kind of played dumb” about, Johnson said.

Lewis told lawmakers he had simply misunderstood Johnson’s question in his testimony. He thought it concerned any tourism work CJRW had done for other states, not for clients within the state, he said.

CJRW Chief Executive Officer Darin Gray referred all questions about the new contracts to the Office of State Procurement, which referred questions to the Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism.

Secretary Lewis said in a statement that a three-person committee of evaluators reviewed the procurement office’s RFP proposal tab but “after careful consideration and evaluation” decided to renew the state’s partnership with CJRW “in all 4 contract categories.”

The review committee members were Lewis himself, his deputy chief of communications, Leah DiPietro, and Visit Bentonville CEO Kalene Griffith, a member of the State Parks, Recreation & Travel Commission.

Lewis said the panel also decided to begin a new partnership with tourism marketer MMGY of Overland Park, Kansas.

MMGY describes itself as an integrated marketing agency for travel, tourism and hospitality brands around the world. It will be a subcontractor to CJRW, according to Parks & Tourism Chief of Communications Shealyn Sowers.

“We are not involved in their negotiated terms,” Sowers said in an email. “This partnership represents a significant milestone for our organization, as it combines the local expertise of our existing partner with the global reach, expertise and resources of MMGY.” The deal also gives the state access to Origin, “an outdoor-focused brand strategy and digital content agency,” Sowers said.

Differing Views

Lewis said he expects the new partnership to “enhance our advertising and marketing efforts across various platforms and channels, driving the state’s tourism industry to new heights.”

But Johnson said the Parks & Tourism staff “obviously is complicit in this, because they talked about how they liked working with the people at CJRW, and the continuity and all that.”

He said Secretary Lewis’ preference shouldn’t make a difference, “or else we shouldn’t even have this procurement process.”

“Why are we wasting the time of the people going through motions, evaluations and scoring?” Johnson asked.

Irvin, Johnson’s Senate colleague, said she considered Miles Partnership perfectly capable of executing the contract, and was skeptical about Lewis’ contention that CJRW’s past experience will help Arkansas attract more future visitors.

“Frankly, in marketing and advertising, it’s important to have new, fresh ideas and perspectives,” she said. “I do not see how ‘institutional knowledge’ would even matter. Perhaps for a technical system, Medicaid for example, then yes, that would be important, perhaps. But not in marketing and advertising for tourism, parks, etc.”

Arkansas levies a 2% sales tax on lodging and certain attractions, and the proceeds pay for advertising to support further tourism. The tax provides a concrete measure of how the state’s marketing pays off. The tax generated a record $25.4 million in 2023, up from $24 million in 2022 and $20.54 million in 2021.

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