Saturday, January 19, 2013

TOP STORY >> A&P defends $150,000 deal with PR firm

By SARAH CAMPBELL
Leader staff writer

The Sells Agency has a $150,000 contract with Jacksonville to do what city employees can’t, according to the Jacksonville Advertising and Promotions Commission chairman.

The Little Rock-based marketing, advertising and public-releations firm does not duplicate the work of the chamber of commerce and economic development consultant Rickey Hayes of Retail Attractions, said A&P chairman Mike Houchen.

Hayes said, “(The Sells Agency) markets the city of Jacksonville locally and regionally. Our marketing is targeted to developers and national retailers and restaurants. It’s a completely different discipline. It’s not marketing the overall community to the region or to the citizens of Jacksonville.”

The commission paid the Sells Agency $151,543 in 2012. Houchen said the additional $1,543 that was over the budget for the contract came from leftover hamburger and motel tax revenues that were collected but not budgeted. The commission did not obtain the additional funds from their reserves, he said.

Houchen said the $151,543 is the most the commission has ever paid the agency. The reason for the additional spending was that the firm promoted the Little Rock Air Force Base air show that is held every two years and produced a video for the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club to show at the first fundraising event the organization has held in several years. The video was also posted on the club’s website.

Houchen said city employees need help from the agency’s staff. “Everybody works together to promote the city. One person can’t do everything by themselves.”

He said the Sells Agency means six to eight people are working on the project rather than one individual.

Mike Sells, the owner of the Sells Agency, agreed. He said, “The agency has got a lot of professional specialist and we get results. We’ve got staffmembers that can do real specific things. (Clients) feel the agency has a lot of expertise it can’t get in-house.”

Houchen said city departments would have to spend “a whole lot more” to hire employees who could do what the Sells Agency does.

Jack Danielson of the Reed’s Bridge Preservation Society agreed. A press release with his name at the top as the person to contact for more information was submitted to The Leader as a sample of the Sells Agency’s work.

Danielson explained that he put together the information for the release, submitted it to the commission’s recording secretary, Nikki Wilmoth, and she forwarded it to the Sells Agency.

Danielson said, “They have all the places to contact. We give information and they put it together.”

Houchen disagreed that Jacksonville has three entities — the Sells Agency, Hayes and the Chamber of Commerce — performing the same function.

Houchen said the goal of the chamber and Hayes — a consultant who has a $60,000 a year contract with the city with up to another $20,000 for trips, conferences and other incidentals – is to attract businesses to Jacksonville.

Houchen continued, “What we do is totally different from what everyone else is doing. We go above and beyond.”

He explained that the commission’s role is to support tourism, not economic development, which is what the chamber and Hayes focus on.

The chairman said, “We don’t go around and pat ourselves on the back. We kind of just do what needs to be done and make sure it helps the city of Jacksonville. To advertise and promote the community and bring people into the community, to get people to spend money, that’s what the A&P commission does.”

Houchen said the city needs its contract with the Sells Agency.

He explained, “Other communities don’t have as much to overcome as we do. We’ve lost population while communities around us have gained. And you can’t sit here and tell me that these schools are fantastic.”

Houchen said the Sells Agency sends out e-mail notifications to the media 10 days before an event. He said the agency sends a second, reminder e-mail three days before the event.

Houchen offered another, specific example of how the Sells Agency money is used.

He said the chamber recently asked the commission to help advertise a job fair and expo it is holding at the old Walmart building in a couple of months.

The event is not the annual business expo.

The funds the commission is giving the chamber will come out of the agency’s $150,000, Houchen said.

“If someone needs advertising it comes out of the Sells (Agency) budget,” he noted.

According to Houchen, the commission’s total budget is about $800,000 — the prepared food tax and the hotel/motel tax. But half of that funds the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

The commission operates with funds from a two-cent tax on prepared foods, also known as the hamburger tax, and a two-cent sales tax on hotel and motel room rates.

Houchen elaborated, “It would take $5 million of business to raise $100,000 in revenues. The A&P Commission would get $50,000. It takes a lot of work to generate a lot of money.”

But he was optimistic about the budget.

“The revenues over the last few years have increased every year. Communities around us can’t make that statement,” Houchen said.

Residents chip in every time they visit a restaurant in town, but a lot of the revenue comes from outside visitors, he said.

A lot of that money comes from the thousands of people who attend the Memphis Flea Market each month at the old Walmart, from visitors to the Museum of Military History, Reed’s Bridge and Splash Zone and from crowded tournaments at the ball fields, Houchen said.

“A whole lot of little things we do bring in business,” he continued, adding that the commission owns a portable stage that is “used everywhere in town.”

The commission bought uniforms for the Pathfinder basketball team to wear during tournaments and canoes for the North Pulaski High School stream team.

Houchen said last year was the first time the commission has spent the entire amount it budgets for the agency’s contract. The money that isn’t used does not roll over to the next year, he explained.

Leftover funds from the last few years have provided the commission with a $400,000 fund for emergencies and/or big projects.

Houchen noted, “We have to have reserves. We don’t budget to the max. We’re very conservative with budgeting.The last thing we want to do is run out of money the last two months of the year. We don’t budget for growth. You might call us negotiators. We don’t believe in paying sticker price.”

Of those “negotiators,” according to the city’s code, four must be Pulaski County residents and own or manage businesses in the travel industry. Three have to manage a restaurant, hotel, motel, bed and breakfast or other temporary lodging facility in Jacksonville. The at-large member has to be a Jacksonville resident. Two members must be on the city council.

The city council members serve the term of that office while the rest on the commission have four-year, staggered terms.

The other commissioners are:

• Ray Patel of Days Inn, whose term ends on March 31. He has been serving on the commission since 2003.

• Jim Hurley of Wendy’s, whose term ends in 2015. He has been on the commission since 2003.

• Former Mayor Tommy Swaim, the at-large member, has been a commissioner since 2003. His term also ends in 2015.

• Andy Patel of Comfort Inn, whose term ends in 2016, has been serving on the commission since 2005.

• Aldermen Reedie Ray and Kenny Elliott, whose terms will end in 2014. Ray joined the commission in 2009, and Elliot joined the commission in August.

Houchen does not meet the requirements to be reappointed to the commission. He previously managed Sonic and worked with Cody’s CafĂ© until it closed about six months ago.

Houchen didn’t want to share the personal reason he is not employed now.

His term expires on March 31, and Houchen said he would probably not seek another four years on the commission.

All the members are in compliance with requirements because those standards are applied at the time people are appointed to the commission.

Sells Agency employees performed the following tasks for Jacksonville and were paid for them in 2012:

• 2011 branding campaign project supervision.

• Website revisions including interactive design and project management.

• Business and visitors guide with art concept/direction, mechanical art, copywriting, proofing, print production and printing. Mechanical art includes changes to the original design work and is billed at a lower rate because it is less “strategic,” according to Sells.

• 2011 fall photography project management.

• Project coordination, public relations and public relations support. Sells said the difference between public relations and public relations support is how much the staff has to do. Public relations support is billed at a lower rate because it either involves less demanding work, such as revising rather than writing a press release, or a junior staff member is completing the tasks involved, according to Sells.

• Account management.

• Account supervision.

• Account coordination.

• Office supplies.

• Mileage and postage.

• Military museum brochure with project management, mechanical art, print production and printing.

• Newspaper ads.

• Facebook ads.

• Magazine ads.

• Radio ads.

• Ads in other print publications, such as travel guides.

• Reed’s Bridge brochure with print production and printing.

• 2012 spring photography including project management, art concept/direction and photo shoot art direction.

• Creative direction/supervision, project management and art concept/direction for benefit concert.

• Jacksonville logo update include project management, project coordination, creative direction/supervision, art concept/direction and revisions.

• Project management, broadcast coordination, broadcast production and TV/video production for Boys and Girls Club video.

• Boys and Girls Club event program including project management and art concept/direction.

• Parks and Recreation Department brochure including intern art direction, project management, creative direction/supervision, art concept/direction and copywriting.

• City map revisions with project management, creative direction/supervision, creative development, art concept/direction, revisions and print production.

• Visitor’s guide for air show with project management, art concept/direction and copywriting.

• Video visitor’s guide with TV/video production.

• Printing of the city map,

• Air show T-shirts with project management, art concept/direction, print production and printing.

• Creative direction/supervision, print production and printing for air show booth banner.

• And project management and mechanical art for air show booth.

The commission renewed its $150,000 contract with the Sells Agency last month. The firm has worked with the commission for the last four years. The old contract expired on Jan. 1. The commission was considering one other firm, Heathcott of Little Rock. Heathcott, which offers lower rates than Sells and has Jacksonville roots, was encouraged to resubmit a proposal in the fall.