A Web Portal Places Its Bets
Stuart Elliot's In Advertising
The New York Times on the Web
By Stuart Elliot
Tuesday, January 14, 2003
There's Mr. C, as in Perry Como, and Mr. B, as in Baxter, from the sitcom and comic strip "Hazel." There's Mr. K, as in Katayama, from the Nissan "Enjoy the ride" campaign, and Mr. T, from "The A-Team," not to mention the line of cocktail mixers. Now an Internet travel marketer hopes to add Mr. V to that list of familiar men, real and fanciful, known to Americans by their initials.
That's V as in Vegas, as in Las Vegas, which makes sense given the identity of the marketer behind him: Vegas.com, a division of the Greenspun Media Group, which is managed by the Nevada giant the Greenspun Corporation. Vegas.com offers reservations for and information about lodging, flights, dining, entertainment, real estate, tours and of course gambling in Las Vegas at its portal Web site (www.vegas.com).
The Mr. V character, portrayed as a brash and breezy insider, is the star of a $7 million campaign that began this month, the first work from Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners West in San Francisco since the agency was awarded the Vegas.com account in November. The humorous campaign carries the theme "It's who you know."
The campaign, composed of television commercials and print and online ads, is indicative of efforts by the Internet advertisers that survived the dot-com meltdown to maintain the momentum they have fought so hard to achieve.
While consumers have embraced travel Web sites far more enthusiastically than they did many others - remember all the dot-com advertisers during the 2000 Super Bowl, like OnMoney.com, that no longer exist? - competition in the travel category is fierce.
Not only are there other Web sites specializing in Las Vegas like LasVegas.com (www.lasvegas.com), but the general-destination travel sites operated by companies like Expedia.com, Orbitz and Travelocity also heavily promote the services they provide for tourist favorites like Las Vegas. For instance, a pop-under ad appearing last week on many Web sites urged computer users to visit a "Vegas deals center" on the Orbitz site (www.orbitz.com).
That is why "this campaign has to be brand-oriented but also results-oriented, communicating a value proposition to consumers," says Howard Lefkowitz, president of Vegas.com for Greenspun Media in Henderson, Nev., which also owns newspapers like The Las Vegas Sun, magazines like Las Vegas Life and Las Vegas One, a cable television news channel.
"It was complicated," Mr. Lefkowitz says of the task he presented to executives at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners West, the first outside agency to be hired by Vegas.com. "We didn't want to be stuck in the niche of typical travel advertising, and we didn't want another shot of a roulette wheel or a showgirl with a big plume on her head."
Additionally, "we wanted to add personality and personability to the site," he adds, "and emphasize the difference that we are the specialists when it comes to Vegas, that we know this city."
How do accomplish all that? The agency focused on the truism that visitors to Las Vegas, particularly the high rollers used to red-carpet treatment, have traditionally relied on someone they knew to provide them with inside information about everything from the hottest craps tables to the coolest lounge acts.
"How do you show people how the Web site works?" Nigel Carr asks rhetorically. He is managing partner and general manager at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners West, which is part of the Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners division of the Kirshenbaum Bond Creative Network.
Mr. Carr answers his own question: "The character of Mr. V becomes representative of the Web site, looking out for you, looking out for the little guy. He goes out and finds the great deals, because he has the great contacts. And he also gives us the opportunity to give the site a personality the competitors don't have, a Vegas feel."
That is manifested by making Mr. V a quintessential Vegas character from the popular culture embodied by movies like "Ocean's 11" and "Swingers," with a touch of the Las Vegas scenes from "The Godfather"; the brace of buddies headed by Frank Sinatra who were known as the Rat Pack; and singers like Louis Prima.
Mr. V talks fast and pointedly, wears a suit and cufflinks and sits behind a big desk in an office high atop a hotel, planted in a plush chair emblazoned with a large "V" on the back, working the phone on behalf of visitors to the Web site and callers to the Vegas.com toll-free telephone number.
To help build a bit of mystique around this consummate insider, Mr. V's face is never shown; he is always seen from behind, seated in the chair, reminiscent of Charlie in "Charlie's Angels" or the George Steinbrenner character on "Seinfeld."
"He's not meant to be a mobster," says Noel Cottrell, managing partner and executive creative director at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners West. "He knows people who knows people."
That approach is demonstrated effectively in the initial two television commercials. In one, Mr. V is saying into the telephone: "So you need a great price on a room in Vegas for the weekend. I have George Maloof on the line. He owns the Palms."
Indeed, there is George J. Maloof Jr., president of the Palms Casino Resort, on the line that is, dangling on a line outside the window of Mr. V's office. He offers room prices - $400, $300 that are rejected by Mr. V, who says, "Work with me, George."
When Mr. Maloof lowers his price to $200, Mr. V says into the phone, "Perfect; $189," and laughs. As Mr. Maloof is seen being lifted upward, presumably back to safety, an announcer declares: "Book a trip. Get a deal. Do Vegas right. Vegas.com. It's who you know."
In the other spot, Mr. V is on the phone again. This time, he says: "So you want tickets to see Clint Holmes this weekend. How's his new show? Here, listen."
The camera cuts to Mr. Holmes, standing in Mr. V's office with a microphone and a bass player. As he begins to sing, Mr. V says into the phone: "Isn't he great? I love this guy. He's even better live." The commercial ends with the same announcer's spiel.
"Mr. V never does anything bad," Mr. Lefkowitz says, laughing. "He gets it done, but sometimes you don't want to know how."
Additional commercials in the same vein have already been filmed, including one in which Mr. V asks an unseen associate, Chuckie, to find a caller a room. In a moment, a man falls past Mr. V's window, and Mr. V says, "Something suddenly opened up." A splash is heard, after which Mr. V adds, "It overlooks the pool."
In another coming commercial, the restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, seated in Mr. V's office, refuses Mr. V's request for a reservation that evening for a table for four at SPAGO. But Mr. Puck changes his mind after Mr. V snaps an instant photo of him scarfing snacks like corn dogs.
There will also be promotions, both traditional and nontraditional, that Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners West will create along with the Vegas.com public relations agency, PJ Inc. in Glen Ridge, N.J.; for instance, there may be "appearances" made by Mr. V at various Las Vegas hotels or nightspots.