ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer
Rodney the Lifeguard(Nov. 23, 2012) Despite a topsy-turvy election season that saw a major power shift in the City Council, the town of Ocean City will be keeping the same face, at least to the outside world, as it has for the last few years.
That face, of course, being the grinning visage of Rodney the Lifeguard.
Despite becoming somewhat of a red herring in the debate over the city’s efficiency – and ultimate responsibility – in the resort’s destination marketing, the jovial TV advocate still seems to be coming on strong, and will continue his role as maritime mascot for at least another year.
“Nobody in a comparable place to this has done anything, consistently, over the years that has created some sort of a personality for the brand that is Ocean City, or the brand that would be Virginia Beach, for instance,” said MGH President Andy Malis.
MGH is the city’s marketing firm, handling the bulk of the city’s off-island advertising and promotional presence. Malis’s firm was first accepted by the city 10 years ago, when the municipal advertising budget was a fraction of the $4,964,215 that was allocated for fiscal year 2012. MGH’s work currently encompasses roughly $4 million of that money.
The fiscal demand of advertising has never been an easy pill for the city to swallow. After 2007, when the real estate bubble began to deflate, the city positioned itself to respond by boosting its advertorial presence. Spending rose from $1,744,549 in 2007 to $2,201,664 in 2008; then to $3,672,775 in 2009.
Over the same period room tax revenues rose as well, though not nearly as steeply, from $10.2 million in 2007 to $12.2 million in 2012.
But some comparable, high-value resorts such as Atlantic City, N.J. have ramped up their ad spending to several times that of Ocean City’s, yet have seen their returns drastically decline.
“One of the things that we specifically were looking for [in doing market research] was the impression of Ocean City’s marketing, how it’s perceived, whether it’s actionable, likeable … everything short of people actually buying the item,” Malis said.
“Even though we were outspent [by other resorts], we’re more memorable.”
Earlier this political season, the council decided — and then recanted on the decision — to seek alternative marketing proposals before the renewal deadline for MGH’s contract came up at the end of this year. Although the then-majority voting bloc on council initially voted to go ahead with the bid process, the vote was reversed after the city’s Tourism Advisory Board said it would not have enough time to review the proposals before a decision would have to be in place.
During the debate, one suggestion was that the city start looking beyond the Rodney era. Not made clear in that argument was exactly what that meant: dropping Rodney or his creator, MGH.
Malis objected to the suggestion that MGH and the Rodney campaign were one in the same.
“It’s silly. We’ve been the agency for over 10 years and we’ve done many campaigns,” Malis said. But Rodney, by all measures, is still doing well.
“It’s just difficult for me, as a marketer, to go away from something that appears to have built some equity,” Malis said. “The evidence would have to be compelling to walk away from this.”
“That doesn’t mean we’ll have Rodney in a wheelchair … eventually we’ll do something else, or the town will do something else.”
Added to the mix is the fact that costs for any given agency’s advertising proposal are highly subjective. What sort of advertising can actually be had, and what it will finally cost, are dependent on the circumstance and the skill of the negotiator, Malis said.
This caused a bit of a stir during the last city advertising contract renewal, at the end of 2010. The then-Tourism Commission recommended a three-year contract extension for MGH, but only specified MGH’s own fee of $180,000. The indeterminable cost of actually purchasing media spots left some council members wary.
“The pricing is a complete negotiation. It’s like the stock market,” Malis said. But because MGH handles multiple large contracts – to the tune of $70 million – they have much more collective weight.
“The media licks their chops when a client goes direct … we’re using our buying power to lean on them,” Malis said. “When you use an agency, you’re going to save.”
Additionally, Malis said, other advertisers may come in with a higher bid and claim priority airtime.
“You can place an order at a very low price, but it’ll get bumped right off the air,” he said. “It’s a question of how low you can go without losing all your spots. It’s not like you can put out an RFP for television time.”
For the coming season, however, Malis said he plans to try to expand the city’s marketing westward.
“There were a number of people who suggested that we do more into western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh market,” Malis said. “A lot of the hoteliers are saying they’re seen people coming from a little further away.”
His recommendation would be to concentrate the campaign “not so much inseason, but in the spring when people are planning their vacations. You don’t just get in a car and drive down to Ocean City for the weekend when you live that far away.”
Malis also said that he was in the early stages of considering how Ocean City could prepare for next season and the possible influx of tourists who would’ve otherwise gone to the now-devastated beaches of New Jersey. Malis said no one wants to give the impression that Maryland is taking advantage of the damage that Hurricane Sandy caused to the north.
“You can’t help but look at what’s going to happen to the Jersey Shore this summer,” Malis said. “I hate to say it, but it could benefit us.”
“We’re kicking around some ideas about how we can address that … some sort of a community effort to help people in those areas.”