Small Businesses Help Boost Mardi Gras

By Peter Hoy
Published: February 28th, 2006
Inc Magazine

MediaBuys, as the agency of record for the City of New Orleans (under the direction of CEO Chick Ciccarelli) led the national search for Mardi Gras sponsors after Hurricane Katrina. It would be the first time corporate sponsors were allowed to advertise during Carnival in the event's 150 year history.

New Orleans is ringing in its signature event, thanks in part to sponsorship from local business owners.

As New Orleans pauses from cleanup efforts to enjoy its first Mardi Gras celebration since Hurricane Katrina, revelers can raise a glass to local entrepreneurs.

Still financially strapped from the storm that struck six months ago, New Orleans for the first time sought corporate sponsors to help pay for the annual event. Initial attempts proved difficult, however, and small businesses in the area ultimately stepped in to help fill the gap.

After deciding that Mardi Gras would, in fact, be celebrated in November, the city enlisted the help of MediaBuys, a media-buying firm based in North Hollywood, Calif., which gives smaller-budget buyers better rates through pooled resources.

Reducing its commission and waiving its retainer and creative fees, MediaBuys launched a campaign offering instant branding though national ad support, a range of sponsorship packages (from $5,000 to $2 million), and access to an on-site "Recovery Room" where corporate participants would be able to interact with the New Orleans residents and businesses. MediaBuys was able to engage 75 potential sponsors in discussions.

Glad Force Flex trash bags of The Clorox Company -- which already had been part of the cleanup effort for months, donating more than 1.2 million trash bags -- was the first large sponsor to sign up. It was also the only major sponsor.

The reason, MediaBuys CEO Chick Ciccarelli said, is due to bad timing and corporate structures. "Companies [didn't have] time to assess the return on their investment, and at the end of the day, their return is the bottom line," he said, noting that large companies generally need more than the one month they had to launch a sponsorship campaign with signage and promotional items. "The larger the corporation, the more time it takes for them to react."

That's where smaller sponsors -- with fewer bureaucratic layers and flexible budgets -- entered the mix. Of the other sponsorships in place that came through MediaBuys, most involve campaigns between $25,000 and $50,000 -- from area clothing makers, travel companies, and other businesses with ties to the Big Easy.

Although local companies seemed to have a better grasp of the situation on the ground versus out-of-state ones, and were therefore more likely to sponsor, city officials said they are impressed with the effort -- given how many businesses were destroyed or displaced by Katrina.

"I've been surprised by the numbers of local businesses that have showed interest," said Ernest Collins, director of arts and entertainment at the New Orleans Economic Development Office, estimating that about 40% of interested businesses were from within Louisiana. "That is high considering how much local areas were affected by the hurricanes."

Ciccarelli expects participation from companies small and large going forward. "There is a lot of promise for next year," he said. "Large companies just needed more time to really think it through."