The message had to change.

It could no longer be a polite dispatch in a small corked bottle floating in a sea of U.S. vacationers, with more colorful bobbers and buoys and even boats catching their attention and their tourism dollars. 

And so the Nebraska Tourism Commission did things differently. It entrusted the state's message to new writers and merchants from outside of the state, to get the attention of travelers who have not noticed that Nebraska might be an interesting place to drop anchor for a weekend, or a week or more. 

Twelve marketing and advertising agencies competed over the summer, including five from Nebraska, and three were chosen, all based in Denver, Colorado, or with an office there.

So, how do the agencies — all nestled within sight of the Rocky Mountains — plan to uncork that bottle and communicate anew to sell a state that can't lure visitors with the type of vistas their creative agents see everyday?

Meredith Vaughan, CEO of Vladimir Jones, the agency tapped by Nebraska's commission in September to handle advertising and media, believes there's a way. 

Vaughn grew up in the family business, founded by her parents and now entirely owned by women, a unique thing in the agency world. 

"We have had a travel, tourism and hospitality client every day since we were founded 47 years ago," she said. "We have great passion for the category. We also have a great understanding and experience in it."

Several who work for the firm are from Nebraska, including associate creative director, Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln grad Matt Sylvan, who will do some of the most important work on the Nebraska campaign, she said. 

Vaughn herself comes to Omaha at least twice a year to watch her son play hockey.

Although it is early in the process of discovering how to sell Nebraska, geography shouldn't define its perception, she said. 

The state has been ranked 50 out of 50 states people say they are interested in visiting. They are not familiar with or aware of Nebraska. That's not a good position to be in, but it makes for a "wonderful challenge" and a rare gift for the agency, Vaughn said. 

"The slate is clean. You have the opportunity to shape consumer perceptions based on what is real and meaningful, and not have to change anything that is necessarily negative," she said. 

Vladimir Jones has had a hand in campaigns for the likes of Colorado, Denver, the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, Snowmass, Aspen, the Broadmoor hotel, Garden of the Gods, Denver's Brown Palace. 

For Snowmass, a ski resort sitting in the shadow of its better-known sister, Aspen, the job was to "define the soul of a place that many people regarded as a mystery." And so they created a campaign based on love letters to dreamers.

"What if I could make you happy?" appeared in New York City's Times Square. On billboards and brochures the love continued. "Would you run away with me?" "What if nature held us close?" "What if I kissed you with snowflakes?"  

The agency shifted from what tourists can do in Snowmass to an emotional connection they can have there when being embraced by nature.

And now Vaughn and her crew are looking for such an emotional connection for Nebraska, she said, to tell the story of a state and what it can stand for.  

The Nebraska Tourism Commission needs a change.

Its former director and then-nine member board went through serious problems last year with a blistering state audit, the firing of the director, a social media blasting of the Bailey Lauerman campaign slogan "Nebraska Nice," a campaign that went over budget, and the subsequent departure of the ad agency's CEO and Nebraska Tourism Commission account manager, which the agency said was unrelated. 

The new director, John Ricks, who has decades of experience in advertising and was most recently the associate director for the Colorado Tourism Office, said Nebraskans are ready to move on, and to do it right.

In choosing the new agencies — Vladimir Jones; Miles Partnership of Sarasota, Florida and Denver, for publishing and content for multimedia, and Turner of Denver for public relations and social media — Ricks said the commission followed every rule. 

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The five-member selection committee was made up of two tourism staffers, including Ricks, plus two board members and one industry representative. The agencies were chosen through a scoring system, and the judges were not allowed to talk to each other during the process. 

But at least one Lincoln businessman has questioned why all the chosen agencies have Denver connections, and no Nebraska agency was even given the chance to deliver an oral presentation to the selection committee.  

Tim Geisert of Lincoln, a chief marketing officer for an international management consulting services company, said Ricks didn't see the talent the state has to offer. 

In addition, he said, he'd rather see the more than $4 million — which comes from lodging fees — spent not on tourism but on bringing millennials back to the state to live and help businesses here build their companies.

"We need talent back. We need our people back," he said. "Think about if you could take this tourism money and put it towards that. I think you'd see a lot more economic development than filling hotel rooms."  

Swanson Russell, a Nebraska agency, did not submit a proposal to the commission this year.

"We looked at all of the circumstances surrounding the tourism campaign and the highly charged issues that were well-documented in the media, and decided it was not in our best interest to participate," said Dave Hansen, Swanson Russell CEO. 

Bozell, a marketing firm in Omaha that has worked with a number of large organizations and events that bring tourism to Nebraska, also did not submit a proposal. Jackie Miller, chief marketing officer of Bozell, said the agency did not feel this campaign would be an appropriate fit for the agency. 

Lincoln agency Firespring sent a proposal, as did Agent Branding of Lincoln, Eleven Twenty-Three of Ralston, OBI Creative and Surdell & Partners, both of Omaha. 

Kelly Medwick, Firespring executive vice president of business development, said her team talked about whether to risk jumping into the tight competition. 

They decided that even if not selected, a proposal would benefit them by building their confidence and strengths, she said. 

"Of course, our team was so excited and they would have loved to work on the account, but I think they're just as excited to see something new come out, she said. "And if it works, you know a lot of our clients are Nebraska-based businesses. It's going to help them." 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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