Ad man a winner for sports teams; Account with Ravens, others in NFL give agency high profile

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was during the third quarter of a football game in 1983 that Bob Leffler decided what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

He had just seen the Baltimore Colts defense run Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway out of that steamy September game. But Leffler had also seen an amazing unity among the Baltimore fans, still seething from Elway's earlier proclamation that he would not come play here -- a move that local fans interpreted as a slam against the city.

"It was a galvanizing day," recalled Leffler, founder and president of the Leffler Agency Inc., a Baltimore-based advertising and public relations/marketing agency. "I knew this was the most exciting thing I'd ever been involved with, other than seeing my daughter born. Everyone was turned on and happy to be living here. It's one of the few times the community gets to touch."

Although Leffler had done sports marketing as a free-lancer since the '70s, the game was his debut as marketing director for the Colts, complete with the sky jumper carrying a football that he orchestrated to wow the crowds.

Leffler was smitten.

"I said to myself, 'I want to do this sports advertising thing,' " Leffler said.

His decision has led him into a sports niche in the advertising world where he has snagged ad accounts for four NFL clients -- the Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cincinnati Bengals and, yes, the Denver Broncos. Recently, his company landed a $3.5 million contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, his first foray into major league baseball.

Leffler also does advertising for Baltimore-Washington Ticketmaster and the Maryland Jockey Club, and he recently won the Naval Academy account, where he will do advertising and work on sponsorships and broadcasts for home games.

"He works in the inner sanctum of the National Football League, the most powerful sports league in history," said Stan "The Fan" Charles, radio talk show host for JFK-AM 1300. "He's plugged in."

John A. Moag Jr., managing director of the sports industry group for Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc., said he doesn't think anyone in advertising understands the sports industry better than Leffler.

"Bob has filled a niche that I don't think anyone else in the country has been able to fill," Moag said. "He is in the business of helping a franchise sell its tickets. They want and Bob delivers knowledge about how to deliver a sports product."

But a true test of Leffler's talents will come when he tries to turn around ticket sales for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Moag said.

"It's not hard to sell the Ravens, because it's football coming back after being away," Moag said. "But it's a real hard thing to do in a place like Cincinnati."

Back in 1996-1997, Leffler had about four months to obtain $20 million by selling 38,000 seat licenses for the Cincinnati Bengals in order to ensure that their new stadium would be built. Using a campaign with the theme "Own Your Piece of the Jungle," Leffler topped the goal by $5 million within six weeks.

In Baltimore, when what is now PSI Net Stadium opened, Leffler was charged with coming up with a media strategy to sell Ravens season tickets. He reports that 54,000 were sold in 16 days.

'Mr. Spacely' a competitor

When people talk about Leffler, 53, they describe a fun-loving man with a passion for sports and for talking, a tenacious salesman and bulldog of a competitor, whose annual parties are considered to be among Baltimore's premier social events of the holidays.

Leffler, 53, is a colorful character, a bit of a hypochondriac, his friends say. A few affectionately call him Mr. Spacely, noting what they say is his resemblance to George Jetson's boss, Cosmo G. Spacely, on the futuristic cartoon "The Jetsons."

The ad man's style is to talk in a shorthand language.

"He assumes you know exactly who he's talking about, that his world is your world," Charles said. "That's frustrating, but it's very endearing. The overall impact is that you're part of the same fraternity."

Leffler has a master's in urban popular culture history from Morgan State University, where he wrote a thesis on the history of black baseball in Baltimore between 1913 and 1951. The work is frequently quoted as authoritative. He taught school during the 1970s, working as a social studies department head in the Baltimore schools, before turning to marketing. That training has served him well in the ad business, he said.

"People's behavior based on demographic segments is very repetitive," Leffler said. "What you appeal to in sports is their sense of optimism and community."

An excellent businessman

Leffler has earned the trust of the managers and owners of national sports teams, said Kevin Byrne, vice president of public relations and marketing for the Ravens.

"That trust develops because he has an innocence about him coupled with some real enthusiasm for sports," Byrne said.

Friend and colleague Gary Jordan, president of Azzam Jordan Inc., said Leffler targeted sports as his clientele and then went after clients with a vengeance.

"The new vanguard of the NFL is that these guys are going to have stadiums and new luxury suites; there are going to be new marketing opportunities," Jordan said. "Bob said, 'If I can figure out how to market ticket sales, personal seat licenses and luxury suites for one club, that's going to open me up for every club that has a new stadium.' And he's done that. Within the agency business, he's known by the NFL leaders as a guy who can make things happen. Bob has become the marketing organization that can put those butts in seats."

Leffler said it was his success at selling out the Buccaneers' stadium for two seasons in a row that won him the Tampa Bay baseball business.

"It's all about treating them as a retail account," said Nilda Kerr, vice president of the Leffler Agency. "A lot of people try to turn sports into an image campaign. We've seen billboards without even a phone number on them. When you're talking about a team that isn't filling its stadium, and there isn't a phone number on the billboard, you've got a problem."

Leffler says the pressure to perform is high in the sports world.

"You can't mess up in sports," he said. "Everyone knows it if you have a bad campaign."

But Leffler hasn't built the agency he founded in 1984 on sports alone. The sports category represents only about 30 percent of his $18.9 million in annual billings these days. Another 20 percent is business accounts, 20 percent media accounts, and the remaining 30 percent, a variety of other institutions.

Longtime client Michael H. Rosen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Town and Country Trust, signed up more than 14 years ago when Leffler's agency was a one-man show. Rosen said he had gone through five ad agencies in the six preceding years.

Town and Country owns or manages more than 15,000 apartment units in the mid-Atlantic region and has more than $100 million in annual revenue.

"Bob is not the typical Madison Avenue ad man," said Rosen. "He's a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-in-the-trenches kind of guy."

Leffler puts a high premium on being accessible. He also is proud of the two 110-year-old Victorian townhouses that he bought and joined in Charles Village. He doesn't believe that his clients should be paying for him to set up in a towering office building of steel and glass and marble floors, so popular in the ad industry. He has another office in Tampa, which he opened in 1985.

One of the reasons that Rosen has stuck with Leffler is that, despite the growth of the ad agency's client base, Leffler has always had time for him.

"When I call him, I've never known him not to call back within the hour," Rosen said.

Leffler is the ad man for all of the 40 Town and Country apartment communities located in six states. He attends monthly staff meetings and annual dinners.

"He's creative, honest and hard working," Rosen said. "He knows no hours. He is not in it just to make a buck. He really is in it to help his clients."

Leffler has used his success with the big sports teams to win new business accounts.

"We tell them we've been successful under a very big spotlight where failure could have been disastrous," Leffler said.

There's no doubt that Leffler enjoys the profile he and the agency get from representing the big sports teams.

"But it's not so much the ego of having sports teams," he said. "It's the fun. When you go to a stadium and you see a full ballpark and you know you helped fill it, it makes you feel good."

And he doesn't hold grudges. In this year's Super Bowl, Bob Leffler was in the stands in Miami, rooting for John Elway.

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