A quid pro quo story in gaming
In the fall of 2009, another installment of a wildly successful movie franchise was about to have its premiere in West Hollywood, I was in charge of advertising at a Las Vegas casino resort on the Strip and my cherished New York Yankees were gunning for their 27th World Series championship.
These worlds would soon collide.
Our sales department was doing its job, attempting to win convention business by massaging and cajoling meeting planners and decision makers. One of their juicy targets was a large software company, which I will refer to here as “The Large Software Company.” The potential revenue for landing this company’s convention business would top $5 million; The Large Software Company would then vault itself into a position alongside our biggest customers.
Large business groups, with their accompanying meetings and conventions, and the food and beverage dollars they generate, are the lifeblood of many so-called “integrated resorts” in Las Vegas. Integrated resorts are those massive properties with convention halls attached to their hotels and casinos. The room reservations from these conventions guarantee high, mid-week hotel occupancy. This, in turn, unleashes hotel revenue managers to raise room rates on the tourists. Big conventions, like the Consumer Electronics Show and the annual National Association of Broadcasters gathering, float all boats; their attendees create customer overflow that fills other hotels. And, of course, the additional gambling revenue generated by these large groups is always welcome.
The chief executive officer of The Large Software Company has a daughter, a girl among the many gushing tweens, pining to attend this movie premier. During the courtship between our sales department and The Large Software Company, its chief marketing officer, “the client,” asks, “Could we get tickets to that movie premier? I’m sure my boss’s daughter would enjoy that.” This appears to be a reasonable request in light of the potentially huge piece of business now on the precipice of consummation.
Will this deal unravel if we say “no?” Probably not. Regardless, can we say “no?” No, we cannot. Sales and marketing professionals do many things well. Saying “no” is not one of those things. Besides, all the client wants are movie premier tickets. That should be an easy “ask” to fulfill, right?
After a few initial phone calls, this innocuous favor morphs into something else entirely. First, I learn that the theatre hosting the premier has a seating capacity of about fourteen hundred people. Second, the tickets to this premier were rumored to be selling for $10,000 each, if you could find any.
To further understand the scope of this challenge, one must ponder an important question: “How many millionaires could there be in Los Angeles looking to impress their daughters, wives and girlfriends with tickets to the movie premier event of the century?” I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation… there are a billion millionaires living in Los Angeles looking to impress their daughters, wives and girlfriends. But despite this, the closest we will ever get to telling the client “no” is, “We’ll see what we can do.”
The biggest Las Vegas Strip resorts have spectacular entertainment options, offering live-action circus-like shows housed in massive theaters custom-built for these shows. The shows are expensive to produce, with ticket prices to match. They demand big, audacious Hollywood-style marketing campaigns to help sell tickets. Enter now into this sordid tale what I will call “The Movie Trailer Company.”
Every Hollywood studio produces trailers: expensive “coming soon” commercials to advertise their films. The studios hire other companies to do this specialized advertising work. The Movie Trailer Company in question recently partnered with our resort to create the advertising campaign for our in-house live-performance show.
Serendipity intervenes. The Movie Trailer Company also created the trailers for this soon-to-premier movie. That’s just two degrees of separation. The owner of The Movie Trailer Company often receives tickets from the movie studio to attend their premiers, including the red carpet gala for this upcoming premier, now the most sought-after ticket in town. Our man at The Movie Trailer Company promised that if he received any tickets to the premier, they’d be ours.
Emboldened by this close relationship between the Movie Trailer Company—our loyal partner—with the movie studio, I enthusiastically and emphatically assured my boss that, “Yes, we can get tickets.” Then, after a brief moment of clarity, I immediately back-pedaled, and via e-mail wrote that I’d have confirmation shortly. Too late: the boss has already promised tickets to his client, and I was “not about to make a liar out of him before his biggest customer.” No, I wouldn’t do that.
My movie trailer guy also back-pedals, saying “I cannot guarantee the tickets [even though I’ve always received them in the past.]” This time, not even the movie studio chief has tickets to this premier, and it’s his damn movie. I am screwed. How did this happen? Is my résumé up to date? (Yes, it is.)
PLANS & MORE PLANS
The Software Company is e-mailing my boss twice a day. I am calling my movie trailer guy three times a day. Panic is slowly setting in, and night sweat is surely coming. My movie trailer contact may still come through, but I need a plan B. And a plan C and a plan D.
In most other fields of endeavor, conjuring up highly sought-after access to an exclusive Hollywood event would be an entirely dire and impossible situation. But in Las Vegas, marketers maintain their own personal juice dispenser. This dispenser is lubricated by the continuous flow of granting mutual favors, usually in the form or access to events, various comps and assorted upgrades, all serving to constantly grease the gears of professional privilege.
Where to begin? I contact my company’s president of entertainment, a guy who runs with A-list promoters and talent managers, and is a living legend in our industry. He knows everybody. I call our vice president of arena operations who can reach out to venues in LA who may have relationships with the theatre hosting the premier. And I reach out to our director of luxury sales, because, well, she knows a lot of really, really rich people.
Lastly, I call some magazines. I was responsible for overseeing a multi-million-dollar advertising budget. I enjoyed a great deal of discretionary spending authority, which, of course, granted me clout. Since I often deluded myself into believing I wielded outsized influence because of the media wallet I held, it was high time those publishers that benefited from the generous dispensing of my advertising dollars to pony up and bail me out, damn it. Fantasies of veiled threats and wild promises followed.
I began my outreach campaign to magazines with a realistic shot at fulfilling this request. I contact three: a national entertainment-celebrity magazine that you’ve read more than once a month at your supermarket check-out; an upscale lifestyle publication, which often features ludicrously pretentious articles about “luxury travel experiences’” and, finally, a national music scene/quasi-news bi-monthly, whose relevance has long since waned. All of these rags will brag about their Hollywood connections when they want to sell me advertising. I come out swinging: “I will commit to an additional $100,000 in advertising with your magazine today if you can get two tickets to this movie premier.” My integrity has now been officially, and irrevocably, breached.
Now, many phone calls and e-mails are flying through the atmosphere on my behalf. I imagine myself lucky to be so well connected, and to have an army of better connected people working furiously to fulfill my needs. And then I wait. And wait. And wait some more.
That night I was on the couch with my son watching game six of the World Series. This is a very big deal. You see, I am a Yankees fan, and without exaggeration I flew 30,000 miles that year to attend games.
My wife videotapes us watching the final out of game six. The Yankees win the World Series and son is jumping up and down, giving me high-fives, and screaming madly. He was four at the time, and it was both heartwarming and hilarious. But the joy on my face is forced. All I could think about were those cursed movie premier tickets. The baseball moment I have waited all year to savor is being drowned out by the fear and dread bouncing around my mind, starting with the words, “What if I can’t get those tickets…”
ALL’S WELL THAT…
By mid-morning the following day, no one in my universe of the well-juiced has called me with any good news. Another moon landing, Patton re-invading Sicily, sitting next to Brad Pitt at the Oscars… these things are more easily achieved then getting these movie premier tickets. I am not connected after all. I have no juice. Then a glimmer of hope peaks through. That dreadful upscale lifestyle magazine sales person calls. “We’ve got tickets. They’re yours, but we want $250,000 in advertising commitments.” No matter what happens now, I will have tickets to the premier. I breathe a little easier. But this extortionist sales person has me over a barrel, and there will be hell to pay later if I make this deal. But I tell my boss, “Yes, we have the tickets.” He is thrilled. His client is thrilled. I am afraid.
Within hours, my movie trailer guy calls. Miraculously, he’s also got tickets. I’m off the hook. Although my integrity has been eviscerated, I am now somewhat redeemed, and I can shake off that magazine sales rep with a “Thank you, but no thank you.” For her efforts, I commit to a one-time, full-page advertisement. This is the last ad I will buy in that magazine. Ever.
That night, I sleep for 11 hours, and when I awake, my pillow is dry.
As expected, my boss does not acknowledge the herculean efforts on behalf of his client. But a month later, I receive a “Thank you” card from the client, accompanied by a nice leather business card holder embossed with her company’s logo.