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Airline account in hand, GKV ready to go places

The penthouse mezzanine at Baltimore's GKV Communications has a harbor view and an outdoor deck - ideal office space, but for one thing: No employee has ever used it.

The advertising and marketing firm has never had enough people to fill the space. Those who might have sat there were abruptly laid off when GKV lost its biggest account shortly before moving in two years ago.

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But now GKV has landed an account large enough to help fill its office. Atlantic Coast Airlines, a new carrier based at Washington Dulles International Airport, recently chose the firm in a national search to create a $30 million campaign to advertise the upstart discount carrier.

Roger L. Gray, GKV's president and chief executive officer, said the firm has been looking for an account this size since 2000 when it lost its then-largest client, Choice Hotels International Inc. The operator of Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge and Clarion Hotels, Choice changed management and dropped GKV after 19 years.

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The loss turned the Baltimore agency upside down and stirred speculation within the advertising community that it might even have to close. "Typically, when you lose an account like this you tend to scramble and look for a bunch of small accounts to fill the gap," Gray said, sitting in his offices, decorated with fashionably exposed piping and ductwork, in the old Procter & Gamble building in Locust Point. "I wanted another big account. That became our rallying cry. It took us awhile, but we've got it."

Soon the mezzanine space will bustle with about a dozen new employees added to a staff of 54. Just about everyone will handle a piece of the new account, Gray said.

Others in the industry say the contract could be a springboard for GKV. The midsize agency is the third-largest in Baltimore with $117 million in billings, including the new account, the company said. The city's largest are Eisner Communications, with $275 million in billings, and Trahan Burden & Charles Inc., at $137 million, according to AdWeek, a trade publication.

"It's significant not only in cash flow, but this could be the beginning of some momentum for the business," John McLaughlin, a communications consultant and former GKV executive, said of the Atlantic Coast account. "One victory attracts other people."

"There are certain accounts, marquee accounts in very visible industries that really say an agency has gotten to a new level," said Mike Donahue, executive vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "Airlines would be one."

GKV is to build a new brand from scratch for Atlantic. The airline is trying to create a new name in the competitive low-fare market after 14 years of operating commuter flights for United Airlines under the name United Express.

With GKV's assistance, the airline will do everything from create a new logo and uniform style, to possibly come up with a new brand name and airplane design. Atlantic Coast officials say marketing is crucial to forming an identity apart from other popular low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

"We think this will be hugely important," said Rick DeLisi, the airline's director of corporate communications.

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GKV has never handled an airline account, but it is one of Baltimore's oldest agencies with decades of experience, albeit under different names.

To track the evolution of the firm, one needs to trace the career path of its president.

Gray got his start in 1979 at W.B. Doner & Co., a $1.2 billion firm that created iconic ads for National Bohemian beer and Klondike ice-cream bars before announcing last spring that it would close its 48-year-old Baltimore office to consolidate in Detroit.

With no advertising experience, Gray joined Doner as a financial officer. While pursuing a master's in business at Loyola College, he became interested in advertising and marketing. A class assignment to create and market a product led to the idea of a "wine spritzer," a precursor to a 1980s hit, wine coolers.

"Bartles & Jaymes made the money and I got the 'A,'" he joked.

In 1981, he joined Smith, Burke & Azzam as a junior partner - one seed for the future formation of GKV. Gray worked on accounts for Playboy and the Roy Rogers fast-food chain. Five years later, all three senior partners at the firm left to start other agencies or pursue jobs elsewhere. Gray found himself the sole original partner still at the firm.

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He decided the company needed to expand and diversify its client base to survive. Over the next few years, the company went through an acquisition frenzy. In 1989, the firm merged with Evans/McLaughlin to become Gray, Kirk and Evans and in 1991 joined with VanSant Dugdale to become Gray Kirk/VanSant. It shortened its name in 2001 to GKV.

Over the years, the company created campaigns for clients such as Coventry Health Care of Bethesda and Lockheed Martin Corp. In 1991, it landed the Choice Hotels account. Not only was it the firm's largest, bringing in $30 million to $33 million a year, but it also brought national attention with creative TV spots that feature various celebrities popping out of suitcases on a bed, from supermodel Cathy Ireland to daredevil Evil Knievel. Gray recalled the difficulty that former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier had pronouncing "Clarion."

"We must have shot that commercial 50 times before we finally just had to dub the word in," Gray said.

But management at Choice changed in 2000 and GKV lost the account, which made up one-quarter of its revenue. The loss - the most trying for Gray since he found himself the lone original partner left at Smith, Burke - taught him not to depend so heavily on one client.

"It was always in the back of my mind that this wasn't forever," Gray said. "But I got so caught up in trying to keep Choice that I forgot to grow the company in other areas."

GKV has won some key accounts since 2001 as it has slowly revived itself, including a $7 million to $9 million deal with Iridium Satellite LLC, an Arizona-based satellite communications firm. The company also beat out 16 suitors to craft a $14 million, anti-tobacco campaign begun in Maryland last year.

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One of its most recent works promoted a new image for 2-century-old Lexington Market. The sassy campaign featured photographs of market stall workers with slogans such as, "If Lexington Market were in L.A., we'd charge twice as much and I'd have a show on cable."

Todd Phillips, senior director of marketing for Lance Inc., recently chose GKV to reinvigorate his snack food company's brand. GKV came up with "Lance in Your Pants," to reflect fun, energy and even a reference to the portability of snack foods.

"I didn't know them at all prior to this process, and they just hit me with a piece in the mail to the point that I just wanted to pick up the phone and call them," Phillips said.

In the case of Atlantic Coast, it e-mailed Gray and solicited his contribution in a competition among firms throughout the nation. Atlantic Coast plans to fly 85 jets that can fly up to 1,000 miles and to buy larger planes for transcontinental flights. It expects to launch its ad campaign next spring before a summer launch to at least 45 cities.

"This is exactly what we've been looking for," Gray said.


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