OCEAN CITY – The town’s preparation for the search for a new advertising agency appears to be complete, as the City Council approved the Request For Proposal (RFP) that will be sent to hundreds of potential candidates in early August.
Tourism Director Deb Travers submitted a nine-page RFP to the council on Tuesday for approval and though it received final concurrence, the council felt the need to utilize their editing power on a few of the line items.
Most notably, the council had asked in a prior meeting several months ago when the discussion last took place to limit the agencies considered for the position to Maryland-based firms only, perhaps on the merits of keeping business in the state, and choosing an agency that knows the town’s needs well. However, some on the council, such as Joe Hall, contest that the request to limit the new agency to only the state of Maryland was never actually made, (the request was made by Councilwoman Mary Knight in open session but didn’t make it into the minutes of that particular meeting), and would be a misstep for the town.
“I don’t see why we would just pigeonhole ourselves by only picking an agency in the state of Maryland,” said Hall. “I understand the idea to keep the money local and keep it in the state, but we want the best agency possible.”
Knight said she made the request because of the dire economic times and realizing that there are over 1,000 ad agencies in Maryland alone.
“My motive was to keep the money here, and keep people employed,” said Knight. “We keep asking people to come to Ocean City and visit us, so why would we give something so important to another state?”
Yet, as a result of Joe Hall’s comments, Councilman Jim Hall made a motion to add all the states that “abut the state of Maryland, including Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC” and that motion passed 5-2, with Councilmembers Doug Cymek and Knight in opposition.
“We want the absolute best agency possible,” said Jim Hall, “and a large amount of our customer base is from Pennsylvania so maybe an agency up there knows how to attract people to us more so than one in our state.”
The other major talking point against the RFP as originally prepared by Travers was a sentence pertaining to the town’s projected target demographic.
It read: “Target Market: Adults 25 to 54 with HHI [Household Income] $75K+, well educated and who work in managerial and professional occupations. The majority of our visitors are married couples with children.”
That line item was quickly smitten from the proposal as council members questioned the perception such numbers might give and concerned others in the “voting seven” that the town was ignoring some tourists altogether.
“I believe the older hotels in town do not have a customer base that is anywhere close to $75,000 per year in income,” said Joe Hall. “Why would we delete 50 percent of our customer base out of our marketing campaign because I know at my restaurant, I have mini-vans and old faded cars. If that’s been our marketing strategy for any amount of time, we’ve been ignoring half of our customer base and those people are loyal and are busting their butts to come to the beach each year.”
Jim Hall motioned to strike the entire sentence from the proposal. In a 5-2 vote, with Cymek and Knight in opposition, the council voted to remove the target audience sentence.
“If someone had read the $75,000-a-year thing, they might think that we only want hootsie-tootsie people to come here, and right now, we are scrambling to get everyone here that we can,” said Jim Hall.
Travers told the council the target demographic was more for media buying than it was for creative campaigning.
“All the target market really does is just help identify which radio stations to use”, said Travers, “so, it’s not really excluding anyone, but every radio station has a target market, so we need to have something to choose which stations we should spend money with.”
Travers said that for many years the target market listed was actually over $100,000 but after a Prism Study was done, the number was lowered to $75,000.
“If we allow the RFP to ignore (people who make less than $75,000 per year), it’s a disservice to half of the businesses in this town,” said Joe Hall. “They deserve to be marketed to and it needs to include a range of the customers that we provide services to.”
City Manager Dennis Dare said that once bids start to come in for the job, the agency proposals will be opened from one sealed envelope, with the price quote in another.
“This way, we can review the credentials of the agency and their technical abilities without the prejudice of price,” said Dare. “We will then open the price bids and rank the companies in all three categories and give a recommendation.”
Joe Hall also contested that the agencies should give “full disclosure” about how they make money and though some on the council saw his point to an extent, it was met with little support.
“I don’t think that’s any of our business to be honest with you,” said Mitrecic. “Our business is to contract an advertising agency for ‘X’ amount of dollars, and whatever deals they make outside of it has nothing to do with us as long as we are getting the product we hired them for.”