A recent story in The New York Times highlighted that famous Vh1 promotion back in the '80s where they gave away 36 Corvettes - from the very first model in 1953 all the way to the current year (1989) sports car. For a bit more than a million dollars, that much-buzzed about promotion helped put Vh1 - MTV's neglected little sister - on the map.
Conceived by branding and marketing impresario Jim Cahill, the Corvette promotion remains legendary more than two decades later. You still "ooh and ah" when you think about the magnitude of one guy winning all those dream cars. The winner was Dennis Amodeo who quickly flipped the cars to artist Peter Max who had an idea for an art project for the fleet that never materialized.
Now you're probably thinking, "Who has a million dollars to come up with a big promotion?" And in fact, when Cahill pitched the promotion to MTV Networks head, Tom Freston, the response was, "This is a big hunk of change, boys."
So, here's the kicker. MTV Networks made money on the promotion!
Working with Vh1's head of programming, Jeff Rowe (many of you remember him as radio PD Dallas Cole) and the GM of MTV/Vh1 Lee Masters, Cahill put together a plan to monetize the promotion utilizing 1-900 numbers.
Well, consider that in order to enter Vh1's contest, viewers had to use a 900-number with a fee of $2. By the end of the promotion, more than 1.3 million viewers paid $1.49 a call to enter, two presenting sponsors ponied up $500,000, along with another million from four participating sponsors. All told, $3 million dollars in profit to MTV Networks.
The story is a reminder of what you could do with a lot of imagination and a few bucks back in the day. But why couldn't you pull off a similar win-win promotion right now? What if your company came to you with a hunk of cash and the directive to "Shake it up, make some noise, and get people talking about the station." Or in the case of a startup, what if you actually had some working capital to launch a new station.
Don't laugh. I've had this conversation a couple of times already this year. While this might suggest that there is indeed the beginning of an economic recovery underway, it also is a reminder of how long it's been since radio stations had any significant dollars to use in order to move the promotional needle.
Guess what? It's not like the days when you could simply peruse this year's Filmhouse reel and buy something off the rack. So if you had some cash right ow, what kind of television spot would you create for your station or morning show that would stand out and accomplish your goals? Or would you even bother with TV at all?
I had a similar thing happen last week where a client programmer got a nice "gift" of contest dollars for second quarter. It had been so long since they had actually given something away that wasn't a part of a sponsorship deal, the PD had almost forgotten about some of the great contests and promotions his stations had pulled off in the past.
In an industry where it is becoming common to just play "small ball" with reduced staffs, minimal research, and virtually no promotional spending, it is even more important to keep thinking big in order to avoid totally losing sight of that big idea. And as we've learned time and again, it is possible to still put that big promotion together with a combination of client sponsorships, promotional ingenuity, and a few bucks.
Sometimes having no money for promotions and marketing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Quarter after quarter, year after year, the promotional budget comes up bare. So managers stop asking for funds, and worse - they stop thinking about the "what if's" - the ideas that could generate awareness, more listening, and brand building.
At a time when everyone is being asked to do more with less, it is important to not let those big ideas and dreams gather dust. When MTV's Tom Freston came to Jim Cahill for that big idea, it didn't take long for that amazing promotion to come together.
All they did was make money and history.