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The Creative Chronicles of TracyLocke and Harrah's

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About the history and creative processes of the TracyLocke-Harrah's ten-year agency relationship. Shows the innerworkings of building a brand and its impact on strategic marketing.

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The Creative Chronicles of TracyLocke and Harrah's

  1. 1. The Creative Chronicles of TracyLocke and Harrah’s How genuine collaboration became a game changer by Jennifer Warren. Creative destruction. It’s an economic term that basically means the new replacing the old, like when the railroad first came to town—changing the way people and commerce were organized. The partnership between Harrah’s and advertising agency TracyLocke evolved in an era of creative destruction for the casino business as it was being transformed into a casino and entertainment destination for gamers. TracyLocke was the creative force behind the scenes, re-making Harrah’s marketing face into a globally recognized powerhouse of gaming. A Bit of History Harrah’s Entertainment began in 1937 when founder Bill Harrah opened his first bingo parlor in Reno, Nevada. Harrah then opened the original Harrah’s Club in downtown Reno in 1946, with blackjack, a dice table, slot machines, roulette, and, yes, liquor. The spotless plush casino was in sharp contrast to the rough frontier-type betting parlors of the time. Bill Harrah paid attention to the needs of the gambler. Stories are told about him placing heaters on snowy sidewalks, melting snow so that customers could more easily access his halls. Interestingly, he was married to famous country singer Bobby Gentry who sang the bluesy song about Billy Joe McAllister jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge on Chocktaw Ridge. But he took care of the gambler, which has been an enduring hallmark of Harrah’s success. From colorful beginnings and Bill Harrah’s well-placed bets, the company became the first casino to list on the New York Stock Exchange in 1972. TracyLocke first pitched Harrah’s to carry out its promotions business in 1999. Harrah’s was considered a mid-level player in the casino business, which became known as the gaming industry, with revenues of $2.9 billion and a stock price around $14 per share. Harrah’s had grown partly though acquisitions, adding Caesars’ casino properties to its portfolio in 2005. Tracy Locke began by managing the promotions of eleven different Harrah’s properties. By year end 2007, Harrah’s had grown through the economic downturn post-9/11 and outpaced competitors such as MGM-Mirage and Mandalay Resort Group to revenues of nearly $11 billion and a stock price averaging of $84. But most importantly, upon TracyLocke’s arrival, CEO Phil Satre wanted to cast off Harrah’s operations orientation and ramp up as a marketing-driven company. With a string of successful promotions under their belt, TracyLocke was asked to pitch Harrah’s for their entire advertising and communications business. At the time, there was no recognizable or cohesive brand that a consumer could get excited about. TracyLocke President Bob Chimbel, then chief creative officer, recalls the agency’s angle: “How we would brand the new Harrah’s was so compelling at the time. It was a simple insight: they were not a casino, but a retailer. And therefore we needed to treat their business using similar communication strategies and tactics as we would a retailer.” TracyLocke
  2. 2. needed to discover what the motivating factors were that would get customers into Harrah’s, to drive traffic as they would for, say, an airline. Making a Brand, Oh Yeah Harrah’s former advertising message had been on a somewhat theoretical, arcane path. It was all centered around the theme of anticipation. But the essence of the gaming experience was upbeat, invigorating, exciting, and fun, TracyLocke found. “While beautiful and artistic with the bluesy, sultry song “Fever” playing in the background, the commercials seemed like the steamy, unseemly side of gambling,” Chimbel recalled. “It made you think of smoke filled rooms at 3.00 in morning, with jazz music in background. And that was completely the opposite of what we discovered motivates and drives a gaming customer into a casino.” The ‘anticipation’ angle sent the creative down the wrong path according to Chimbel. It was not the way the gamblers, or gamers, felt. When TracyLocke earned the advertising business, they took a deep dive into understanding what gamers hot buttons were. “There were some very distinct fence posts that as long as we stayed within a particular arena, we literally could put a commercial on Friday and then increase the slot take on Saturday, sometimes a 20-30% uptake than without it,” Chimbel says. “As soon as we moved away from the fence posts to experiment for art’s sake, we’d lose it. The effect was measurable.” TracyLocke then understood what cues belonged in commercials, what to leave out, and how they needed to brand Harrah’s through their messages. Account director Dan Wagner noted that the re-positioning of Harrah’s united the many disparate properties under one common brand umbrella, with a common look, tone, feel, and messaging. “We built a very cohesive brand identity that still allowed for customization across the properties,” he reflected. “That very fragmented brand—now boasted as a global brand— then had extreme consistency across their entire portfolio, which prior to us was not so.” The brand was positioned through extensive research with focus groups. “We adjusted the creative stimuli while participants were in the room, and brought new concept boards back out [in real time],” Wagner continued. “It was an extremely unique form of research where we continued to move creative cues to the point where we hit the nail on the head.” The real-time creative exercises paid off. “Everyone talked about exhilaration, excitement, the thrill and the rush of gambling. When the participants came in, they seemed very beaten down from the day. But when we talked about gambling, they got excited and talked about it in a whole different manner.” At one point, Wagner suggested to the focus group moderator that gambling makes them feel alive, and more exuberant. Creative director Gerry Ambrose remembers the development of the brand and its impact. “We could look at their customers’ profiles and identify them according to their gambling characteristics and preferences. We developed a creative strategy from that and turned it into meaningful advertising.” That spawned the initial “Exuberantly Alive” campaign. It struck the emotional chord that nobody had done. “It was very groundbreaking and different, and real—because it was real.”
  3. 3. At this time, the inside of a casino had never been shot on film due to prior laws. When the prohibitive walls came down, TracyLocke shot their first TV spot at Harrah’s New Orleans. Harrah’s brand marketing executive Maggie Nation reminisced, “Literally with the campaign TracyLocke created and evolved over the next several years, everybody started copying [it], which is magical. What that does is it says that the partnership between Harrah’s, the brand strategy, and then what TracyLocke created in terms of the creative evolution, was so critical and so right for the industry, that everyone tried to copy it…” Translating the essence of how ‘exuberantly alive’ feels into meaningful advertising was a task. “We papered the walls with variances of language and words, with all the expected traditional words—excitement, thrilled, and so on. I remember coming into the room, and saying, ‘What do all these words mean?’ What do you say when you’re at that most exciting, game on, climax of an evening?” In the room, someone said, ‘Oh yeah!’ Chimbel responded, “Oh yeah. That’s it.” The simple but powerful tagline “Oh yeah!” had larger implications. Maggie Nation pronounced, “That’s really where the magic was in terms of building a brand that went from always strong brand awareness to the highest unaided and aided brand awareness in the category. A lot of that was driven by the creative at TracyLocke.” Through this “simple act” of creation, TracyLocke essentially co-opted the product category benefit. Chimbel says that is the best position in which you could ever place a client. Many types of product category benefits can be superceded. But identifying the emotional benefit, that is, owning the category benefit and “sticking it to your brand better than your competitor—is unbeatable,” he emphatically stated. It was viral advertising that pre-dated the viral marketing of the Internet. When customers hit it big in the casino, and exclaimed, ‘Oh Yeah!,’ that was the genius of the Harrah’s brand. Ginny Shanks, Harrah’s senior brand marketing executive, sums up the brand campaign’s challenge of acceptance by local casino managers downstream, “I think what was most helpful when we looked to create this brand campaign, with 15-16 different Harrah’s properties, was, one: property marketers already knew TracyLocke, and there was a trust there among those folks with the agency. They knew TracyLocke would be on the ground working on any localized initiative I could think about. When the property opened in Chester, Pennsylvania, there’s TracyLocke. When there was a strike in Atlantic City, there was TracyLocke. And you don’t get that type of resource allocation from an agency typically. When I think about TracyLocke, they just proved themselves over and over again outside of the usual agency circumstances. An Unconventional CEO In 1998 the CEO of Harrah’s, Phil Satre, hired former Harvard Business School professor Gary Loveman to realize his vision of a company whose customers were loyal to the Harrah’s brand. Meanwhile industry competitors were dazzling customers with lavish facilities boasting faux pyramids, sphinxes and movie-themed amusement parks, rich
  4. 4. with amenities in which to indulge. But Harrah’s was quietly refining its customer loyalty program, Total Gold, which was similar to a frequent-flier program. With academic Loveman at the helm, corporate data miners knew that Harrah’s had 36% of the gamer’s dollar. A rewards program on steroids would be developed—“a game changer” in the words of Bob Chimbel. Through new intellectual insights gleaned from their IT investment to mine the customer data, the enhanced program, Total Rewards, gave Harrah’s the ability to predict the lifetime value of their customer, and who their customers really was. It was a coup in customer relationship management. Through skillful execution of the program, Harrah’s would realize 42% of the gaming dollar available per customer, with 42 million loyalty program members. But this brilliant program and all of the science behind it needed to allow for “marketing interventions” as noted by now CEO Gary Loveman in his May 2003 Harvard Business Review article “Diamonds in the Mine.” Promoting this marketing revelation became the task for TracyLocke —to breathe life into Total Rewards. Chimbel acknowledges, “It’s one thing to come up with an algorithm of rewards, but how do you take a very complicated reward system and communicate it to people. It was in fact de-marketing to the retail customer, which is tricky.” Fortunately TracyLocke was adept at promotions and the micro-level branding that would be needed to communicate the three-tiered program of Gold, Silver, and Platinum levels to Harrah’s customers. The effort would need to be customized across the geographically-diverse Harrah’s properties with the many local sensitivities required to appeal to customers in Metropolis, Illinois, Tunica, Mississippi or Atlantic City, New Jersey. Marketing executive Ginny Shanks offered insights on the effect of TracyLocke on the Total Rewards program, “One of the hallmarks of TracyLocke work was the development of Total Rewards creative. Here was a loyalty program to be advertised in mass media.” She continued, “That’s a difficult challenge particularly when it represented the Horseshoe brand, the Harrah’s brand, the Caesars brand and a lot of individual, one-off brands. What TracyLocke was able to do with that creative was just masterful. It transcended all the different brand positionings and had such a strong message about why you want to participate in this loyalty program, Total Rewards.” Mass(ive) marketing Harrah’s was gaining momentum in the industry. Its national brand was resonating with customers and Total Rewards was deepening customer loyalty. TracyLocke was combining the virtues of database mining with promotion by partnering with brands such as Coca-Cola, Godiva Chocolatiers, and American Airlines to further entice rewards members old and new. “My favorite promotion of all time was “Wining Will Find You,” recalled Harrah’s Holly Way of acquisitions marketing. “That was the very first breakthrough promotion where we partnered with Coca-Cola in a way that we had never partnered before. We put promotional tactics in place that we had never tried before.” With strategic marketing efforts taking center stage, the TracyLocke promotions machine was still running in the background. A quintessential TracyLocke promotion that ran for
  5. 5. years throughout the relationship was named “Treasure Hunt.” The promotion, first started in 2001, received a celebrity jolt in 2006. TracyLocke secured Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, to play a key role in the enticing commercial spots aired nationwide. Adventurous winners would have the chance to dig along the Las Vegas Strip for buried treasure in hopes of winning a million dollars. The end of the commercial shows Wayne Newton passing by in a convertible saying, “That’s how we roll,” as he pulled away in a blue Rolls Royce convertible with the other hunters. Gerry Ambrose helped write the commercials and develop the concepts. “It was really successful because it played into the buzz at the time about Reality TV, as in the genre of “Survivor.” Wayne could not have been a nicer guy to work with. He even let us use his Rolls Royce convertible in the spot. He’s a big car aficionado. The look and feel of the spot was very Ocean’s Eleven—which was hot film at the time.” A major challenge came when Harrah’s acquired Caesars Entertainment, adding 28 casinos to the portfolio in 2006. The challenge, according to Dan Wagner, was to avoid cannibalizing business among properties. Through a commissioned segmentation study, TracyLocke learned that the there were now really three major brands under Harrah’s umbrella which could be uniquely targeted: Harrah’s, Caesars, and Horseshoe. Maggie Nation discusses the integration of Caesars’ brand, “TracyLocke was very, very good about getting to the core of differentiation between the brands, and built campaigns around that. So you had complementary and never cannibalistic campaigns supporting those individual brands.” During this period, more mini-branding efforts were evolved. Amenities such as a Toby Keith’s “Love This Bar & Grille” restaurant found its own identity and messaging. Harrah’s realized they needed to distinguish their individual branded assets with their own unique identities to draw even more customers to Harrah’s that might not otherwise visit. A multitude of communication tasks ensued—casino and restaurant openings; signage and collateral; TV, radio and billboard advertising campaigns; naming amenities from sports bars to buffets. Ambrose describes their involvement with Harrah’s as total immersion. Harrah’s was inviting to the agency, and the agency responded in kind. In 2005, Harrah’s was the only gaming industry player listed, for a fifth year in a row, to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index. Two Companies, One Mind Those close to the Harrah’s-Tracy Locke relationship would characterize it as a partnership. But inherent in that partnership was that TracyLocke felt like an extension of Harrah’s marketing department. Chimbel states, “There was a complete breakdown of the traditional client-agency relationship lines. We never asked how were going to get it done. We just found a way. That comes from having the same goal—how to grow your client’s business— together.” Maggie Nation comments about TracyLocke’s approach, “The attribute that TracyLocke brings to a client, that may be least expected but at the end of the day, turns out to be the most important, is a never-say-die attitude. The word “No” doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. There is no issue that a client will put in front of
  6. 6. them, whether it needs to be proactive or reactive, that these guys will literally not jump through hoops to do.” Some suggest TracyLocke and Harrah’s were synergistically compatible. “We were symbiotic,” Chimbel replied, “These two firms were literally organisms that worked together. That’s unusual.” Results accrued. “At the end of the day, you had an agency that rolled up their sleeves—bled with the client, drank with the client thru good times and thru bad times…” In a show of appreciation, CEO Gary Loveman invited TracyLocke to a “thank you” dinner and party at the Rio in Las Vegas. Everyone from the entire team was invited, which was some 30 or 40 people, plus some spouses. Ambrose adds that once Harrah’s even sent them boxes of champagne. “That doesn’t happen,” he noted. The appreciation went both ways. TracyLocke’s commitment to their partner Harrah’s revealed itself acutely in a time of crisis. Wagner remembers when Katrina hit in September of 2005, “When we got into the office on Tuesday, no one had any warning that it was as catastrophic as it was—with levees failing and the total devastation. From what we saw on the news on Monday, we were all on phone calling our clients, seeing how people were.” TracyLocke did what they could from the media perspective, pulling advertising, radio, and print. Staff at TracyLocke offered their homes to Harrah’s employees. “We provided clothing and spending money for those who were displaced and couldn’t even pack,” Wagner recalled. “We contributed to a Hurricane Katrina relief fund for employee assistance. As an agency we were definitely the first responders to Harrah’s as a client.” TracyLocke created and executed Harrah’s public relations work throughout the crisis. Ambrose remembers how TracyLocke was on high alert, “They had us create speeches immediately for CEO Gary Loveman, ad communications for posting in the newspaper, online elements, and for employees reading the newspaper about what was happening.” Harrah’s wanted to be proactive and TracyLocke was right there with them, heading to the area immediately. Ambrose says, “I remember getting calls and emails after Katrina hit that we were going to have to do a lot of work for that property, and we all jumped on it.” Employee Brian Powell of TracyLocke served as a stand-in vice president of promotions while a Harrah’s employee dealt with her losses. Just prior to Katrina, TracyLocke had finished an entirely new campaign that was specifically created for the New Orleans casino, which had its own signature brand. That whole concept became a template for rest of the properties for the Harrah’s portfolio. Ambrose says the land-based casino was a very big destination for people. It offered the most elaborate of casino floors in the Harrah’s portfolio, rivaled only by the Atlantic City Harrah’s. About the crisis, Wagner reflects, “We did all that not out of a business relationship, we considered them friends. We felt deeply about them. When they were at a time of need, we felt it.”
  7. 7. Personal responsibility and commitment that was beyond the traditional agency-client relationship grew over the course of the nine-year relationship. In 2004, Harrah’s Atlantic City casino employees walked off the job on behalf of their union. With Harrah’s scrambling, TracyLocke sent twelve of their team members to help in housekeeping, making beds, working the buffet, as cashiers, whatever the job might entail. About one- third of account services worked as Harrah’s employees to help keep the hotel open. Chimbel recounts, “Our agency staff flew, at our offer, to Atlantic City. I like to say “Some agencies are in bed with their clients; we make beds with our clients. We literally were housekeepers and made the beds.” In addition to the incredible intellectual thinking that went on, Chimbel says, we were fully connected on every level with our client. “This is part of why the relationship lasted as long as it did, and was as successful as long as it was,” he reflects. “The concept of being holistic, from their promotions to their advertising, to making beds with them during a labor strike, to redesigning signage, opening restaurants for them, together. This is a model of full service that goes beyond butlering.” Casino gambling and Las Vegas evokes feeling of glamour and glitz, lights and bling. Chimbel likens the servicing of Harrah’s as really more block and tackling, grass roots efforts, riverboats, and odd places. It was more like sending out S.W.A.T. teams and managing businesses with seventeen different general managers calling the shots. Chimbel says a definite TracyLocke expertise was the ability to reach out and get your hands dirty, like America’s Toughest Jobs. “We had figure out how to create tool box solutions, and fill in the gaps to make this work efficient. We were not selling Las Vegas to all of their customers; the Harrah’s customers will know them as the casino that’s sitting in their backyard, in Joliet, Louisiana.” In addition to finding the right cues, TracyLocke had to find cost-efficient branded solutions while being sensitive to the individual markets. Out of necessity, they had to morph into whatever needed to be for a successful outcome. Rising to the challenge was like a badge of honor for the TracyLocke team. Chimbel qualified their efforts, “Even when budgets were low, it didn’t stop the ideas. Creative just had to be more creative.” Presenting to the public In today’s world there are few, if any, products that are not commodities according to Chimbel. “Is Harrah’s black jack table any different than MGM’s? We’ve entered the golden age of marketing. What makes someone take the left turn to your location versus the right turn to another’s? It’s something that connects with them on an emotional level.” Having more slot machines doesn’t do it. Actual product experience is the first step in brand experience and how the public begins to formulate opinion. Chimbel professes, “The next most powerful tool in lieu of actually touching the brand itself is some school of communications, whether traditional or not. And hopefully the product itself meets up to the expectations that your advertising and promotions evoke.”
  8. 8. When asked about whether advertising is viewed as a necessary evil or something of value, Chimbel assesses, “It is essential. The visionary CEOs realize the importance of that mix of disseminating what their brand image and strategy is to people. They will be advocates and apostles saying: ‘We need to promote.’” Those with shorter sights might say: ‘I don’t know what I’m getting for my money. I don’t trust it. I can’t measure it.’ Something is at work, Chimbel attests, when airing a Harrah’s commercial on Friday—and they receive a million-dollar uplift in sales on Saturday. “That means you got it right,” he states. “I’ll take that ROI any day of the week. That takes a leap of faith for those CEOs who are not used to working in a somewhat more qualitative, instinctual space.” The partnership of Harrah’s and TracyLocke reveals what smart business strategies alongside intelligent creative communications can achieve. Marketing veteran Maggie Nation opines, “We thought we needed a promotions agency. It turned out what we really needed was a branding agency, someone that would help us define Harrah’s and what it stood for,” she continued. “And we did need a promotions agency and they had that expertise. We needed someone who could come up with big strategic ideas and could execute them at the field property level. They had that expertise … You simply will never find a more well-rounded agency with more skills in the areas that are completely unexpected, but that are so important in your business needs.” But the real essence of the relationship was a partnership of mutual respect, commitment, and—Oh Yeah! by Jennifer Warren.

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