When I was the advertising coordinator of the newest Harrah’s property, we worked with an agency of record and a spunky little boutique agency. Together they helped us bring the Harrah’s New Orleans brand to life in our little corner of the world, and we were happy.
It was the end of the 20th century, and the business world was asking itself, “What is our brand if not a logo?” With casinos opening across the country at a quickening pace, and a few one-off brands (Showboat, Harveys and Rio), Harrah’s Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman was asking the same question, tasking the corporate marketing leadership to create a brand role and uncover the “thing” that made us unique.
Along with that exercise came the realization that property advertising had become so focused on calls to action of food and promotions that the brand was becoming more differentiated from the emotions related to the gaming experience. In fact, many advertising samples had no relationship to the Harrah’s brand.
As a result, a number of those ads looked more like a copycat of the competition than Harrah’s. We knew that consistently branded communications were a hallmark of healthy, profitable companies. Strong brands owned (and still hold) a unique position in the consumer’s mind.
With each property engaging its own agency and creative resource (such as we were), that consistency became harder and harder to apply. Additionally, with each property paying individual agencies, the costs were increasing.
It is no surprise the next part of this story was the day we were told we would no longer be using the local resources with whom we had spent two-plus years developing a relationship and a communications shorthand resulting in the creation of award-winning work. We would now be requesting creative from Las Vegas. How was some group in Las Vegas going to know my customers and my market? It was a question asked across the U.S., and the answer was firm.
In-house or agency? The story is the same. When I stepped into the new role of vice president of brand marketing for Isle of Capri Casinos, one of the first things on the list given to me was to secure a new agency for our properties. So, while the properties did get to work directly with the agency, there was a guiding hand in everything produced. The truth is that the company had functioned similarly before my arrival, but my experience, combined with that of my hiring manager, made it feel like it would be different.
It is a story that has happened similarly at many properties. Whether a property finds itself with newer, more prominent owners or part of a smaller operator’s collection of assets, the change can feel the same to the local property marketing team.
Founded in 2004, privately owned Wild Rose Entertainment operates three casinos in Iowa. The company previously tried a more casual, unofficial approach to consolidating its marketing expertise. However, in late 2019, they made it official, consolidating much of the marketing expertise at the corporate level, and named former property marketing director Aaron Harn as the corporate director of marketing.
“We wanted to align the brand and make sure that as we moved forward after investing in the redefinition of our brand, we could create a consistency that could benefit all of our properties,” Harn recalls.
While the company worked with a handful of resources, it did not have an agency of record. However, they also had three designers, one at each property, creating three different looks and feels, sometimes for the same program.
Additionally, they looked to create support for database marketing and consolidate payroll.
The changes signaled a different approach by the leadership of the company. It is no surprise that some embraced the changes as they saw a way to perhaps break the cycle of repeating programs with little to no improvement. Some, however, were hesitant.
Covid shutdowns followed closely after the changes, giving them even less opportunity to gain consensus, but something exciting happened as they reopened their doors. Their customer base looked, acted, and required different methods of communication than before.
“Covid made everyone realize there needed to be a change,” says Harn. The capability at the corporate level has allowed them more agility to move quickly into newer channels such as SMS and email marketing. “We’ve seen success with these new ways of communicating. It’s been a huge change in our business model.”
Penn National Gaming has had a shared corporate services team in place for nearly six years. However, creative services were an evolution of those services, which started as a team facilitating database marketing. In the beginning, the focus was on the digital space, taking some of the work that an agency was doing for them.
Penn National Gaming Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Weissman, who previously worked for Harrah’s/Caesars, recalls that over time the team continued to work on identifying and absorbing what might be termed as production work—those things that are done over and over in much the same way, regardless of perhaps the market or the team. In the marketing communications space, this might be a billboard concept that needs to be resized or a poster converted to a duratrans.
“Our goal in creating this creative services organization,” says Weissman, “was to ensure that our businesses—that are executing on and developing their own unique strategies—have the appropriate time and bandwidth to focus on the things that move the needle and the things that are more strategic in nature.” The shared services team takes on the work that is not strategic in nature so that the local teams can be as effective as possible.
Even though Penn has a corporate creative services organization, they also maintain relationships with various agencies. And depending upon the needs, they may bring in other creative minds to assist. Moreover, to ensure the local market is always a factor, Penn has team members at properties that continue developing and creating great communication programs, particularly when it comes to direct communication that happens through social channels.
Database marketing support is now functioning in a regional model. They develop and send emails and other communications.
“Quite frankly,” explains Weissman, “through Covid, we even learned that the boundaries continue to be moved as far as where everyone is located. I had gone through the Caesars and Harrah’s iterations multiple times, and I do think the way that we have approached it here is very different. Whereas the reasons for developing the original Harrah’s Studio in 2001 were based on the need to build and enhance the Harrah’s brand, there were was a sharp focus on cost savings. It was intended to be a centralization of talent, knowledge and assets.”
For Weissman and her Penn team, it is less about a specific structure written on paper and more about evolving to find what works (if perhaps unexpected) and the right people. These roles take much collaboration in addition to knowledge. So, they hire for that.
“It’s really important for us to have folks on the team that understand that we’re a 365-day-a-year business that hopefully, sans Covid, never stops,” says Weissman. “We hire for people that get excited about that and that either have lived it because they’ve worked at a property or continue to live it because they’re at one of our properties today. You cannot be inflexible when it comes to how the structure needs to work, how people are aligned, and what they do.”
Another hallmark of the shared services approach Penn practices is how they have set up a regional structure. Each region has a leader that works closely with the properties and the corporate organization. Regular meetings and an abundance of communication ensure that information and best practices are shared for everyone’s benefit.
“We continue to build talented marketing and bench strength, which I’m really proud of. And I think that we’ve got an amazingly talented group of marketers here at Penn,” says Weissman. “Every day, they amaze me with their creativity.”
But my personal story does not end at the introduction of the Harrah’s Studio. Barely six months into the transition, I found myself as that corporate resource. And the world looks different from that desk. Yes, we could tell the investment community a story of brand-building and $11 million in savings, but few of the operators saw it as a positive.
“My market is different.”
“My customers are different.”
We had to find a way to balance the commitment to the brand with the needs of the local markets. For us, it took the form of countless trips to the local markets, focus groups with customers, and workshops with the marketing teams. Together we discovered how the brand came to life in each market and how we could bring that focus to their communications while still leaning into the brand.
Harn says it is essential for him to be mindful of the differences and dynamics of each property and its respective market.
“While they are not drastically different, Emmetsburg is perhaps more agriculturally focused with an ‘older’ customer demo that tends to be more relaxed and casual,” says Harn. “Jefferson is also agriculturally based, but it leans more blue-collar and sophisticated, while Clinton’s location close to the river gives them a different twist, drawing a younger market. The macro brand works, but we have to figure out which parts to expand on at each property.”
Harn says daily calls and regular monthly meetings that (in the future) will move from property to property create a productive input-and-feedback loop. The goal is to allow the properties more opportunity to concentrate on operations and the changes that give them a market advantage. At the same time, the corporate team looks to unify the marketing efforts and leverage best practices. They plan all three property calendars as a team, sharing best practices.
“While one marketing director might have an idea that might not fit their property,” Harn explains, “that idea might work in another. These types of regular sharing points allow the properties time to consider and act on what helps them while the corporate team works on supporting them.”
Harn’s approach echoes Weissman’s philosophy of sharing best practices. “One business might be having a challenge, and another business may have gone through something similar,” she says. The ongoing communication allows for the flow of helpful information.
For Penn, the approach—a combination of deliberate and organic changes over time—results in a more distributed system that maintains a local input.
“From a media perspective and the way we think about the different business channels,” says Weissman, “that is directed and managed at a local level. The account management for each individual business is done at a local level. All of our property and product team leaders have relationships directly with the organizations that are purchasing and developing their communication plans. They do it in tandem, and it’s a very, very collaborative process.”
Account management for creative has evolved organically over time. While you would not be surprised to know many of the account management team members have come from the property level, you might be surprised to learn they do not all sit in an ivory tower at the corporate office. In many cases, these members of the corporate services team sit at the individual property. This situation is ideal as it keeps the work tied closely to the business and still provides a valuable contribution to the creative team. In some cases, these team members even play dual roles.
Now more than ever, marketing departments must be focused on optimizing expenses, team collaboration, and ROI. Consolidation at a corporate or regional level can make sense for large and small operations as it can provide better brand consistency, agility, streamlined workflows, and skills optimization. It can also provide a path for tactical marketers that may not have existed before. However, the key to success is the partnership and communication between the shared service and the local marketing teams.