In 2004, Archie Gottesman, chief branding officer of Manhattan Mini Storage, received an angry call from the Anti-Defamation League about her latest billboard. The image in question depicted a Buddha statue with a speech bubble saying, "My owner’s a Jew… again." It turns out, not everybody got Gottesman’s brand of humor.
"I’m Jewish," Gottesman explains in her energetic, mile-a-minute way. "A lot of Jews try Buddhism for a while, then go back to being Jewish. I thought this picture was hysterical, but that’s the thing about our advertising: not everybody gets it. We’re dancing on the razor’s edge."
That infamous phone call forced Gottesman to make the difficult decision to take down the billboard. "This was the only ad we ever took down," she says. "It was one of our earliest and truthfully, the call got us concerned. If this had happened today, we would never have pulled it."
That’s easy to believe since, over the last decade, MMS’s ads have only gotten more provocative. The company has perfected its distinct, snarky voice with dozens of billboard ads that address hot button issues on New Yorkers’ minds including gay culture, right wing politics, abortion rights, and perhaps most shockingly, why the Mets even bother calling themselves a professional team. People often ask which advertising agency hatches MMS’s hugely successful campaigns, but the truth is that the branding is an in-house job. For the last two decades Gottesman has been carefully crafting the ads for MMS, the company that her father and uncle founded in 1978.
Gottesman, 51, was the only one of four kids who joined the family’s real estate business, Edison Properties, which includes MMS, the Ludlow, and Edison Park Fast, a collection of parking garages. When she was younger, she worked in the company’s parking division during the summer, then after college, she joined MMS doing mostly prosaic work in sales and accounting. "Having a family business as a legacy meant a lot to my father," she says. "I think that’s why I decided to come on board." Later, her husband, Gary DeBode became Edison Property's CEO. They have three kids, one in high school and another in college, none of whom is particularly set on taking over the company.
From the very beginning, Gottesman felt MMS needed a better brand strategy. At the time, she was drawn to the edgy one-liners in Kenneth Cole ads, so she figured that she could take a stab at grabbing New Yorker’s attention with irreverent wit. Since MMS’s parent company, Edison Properties, owns buildings throughout the city, there was no cost to renting billboard space so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to launch an awareness advertising campaign. As the boss’s daughter, she had the management’s ear, so she ran with this new plan.
Early on, she tried working with ad agencies to replicate this style, but she came to the conclusion that communal decision-making only makes ads worse. "Groups water down good advertising because everyone has a point of view," says Gottesman. "It just seems that ads created by committee don’t have a very strong voice." Instead, she hired a trusty sidekick, Stacy Stuart, a marketer with an MBA and experience at Ogilvy & Mather, who seemed to get what she was going for, and the two have been MMS’s branding department for twenty years. They occasionally hire freelance copywriters who help brainstorm and wordsmith taglines, but often it’s just a two-person operation.
Looking back, Gottesman believes her marketing instincts were right on the money. After all, little distinguishes one storage company from another apart from branding. "We’re a commodity that, aside from location, isn’t very different from any other company in our sector," Gottesman says. "Because it is a family business, I had a certain amount of creative freedom to try something different and interesting. There was no grand plan: we just decided to play up the funny. We’re in New York and we figured that New Yorkers are a pretty sophisticated audience, so we just gave it a try."
"I found my joy doing this," Gottesman says. "It’s just how my mind works." It’s true: she brings this marketing approach to everything she does, even outside her work. As a board member of the Animal Haven Shelter, she’s helped the nonprofit rebrand, giving more of a pet boutique feel, which resulted in a 500% increase in adoption rates. Oh, and she’s also keen to rebrand Judaism.
Gottesman says it took a while to get MMS’s voice right. At the beginning, the ads were more tentative, largely because she felt pressure from her father to focus on the product, rather than the jokes. But she kept trying to push the boundaries, incorporating humor and provocation into the billboards. In the 2003 "I Store" campaign, for instance, the conceit revolved around the funny things people store, such as a ditsy girl putting half of her brain in storage or Santa storing his exercise bike. One picture, in particular, turned heads: a man in scrubs stores his chemistry set, his vinyl albums, and his boyfriend’s artwork. "Back then, if a gay man was in an ad, it was about him being gay," she says. "We got so many calls from people saying they appreciated how this ad was not about the man’s sexuality; he was just a medical student or a doctor talking about the many things in his life."
The response from this ad encouraged Gottesman to be bolder about addressing big issue. In fact, this has become a systematic part of MMS’s advertising strategy. Before every campaign, Gottesman and Stewart brainstorm the cultural topics that New Yorkers are currently discussing. "I like to think that we’ve had a long-term, ongoing conversation with New Yorkers," Gottesman tells me. "We’re the witty friend that people encounter when they go about their day. We were the snarky Twitter voice before there was Twitter."
From a marketing perspective, the approach makes sense. Gottesman says that people tend to look for storage when they are going through a major life change, like marriage, divorce, moving in with a partner, or having a baby. Rather than targeting people facing transitions, Gottesman has a long-term approach of generating brand awareness so people immediately think of MMS when they need extra space, whenever that might be. The approach seems to be working. While MMS, a private company, was unwilling to disclose growth or revenue figures, the business appears to be thriving and currently serves over 250,000 customers.
In 2007, Gottesman got the chutzpah to go full-on political. One ad featured the line "Your closet space is shrinking as fast as her right to choose" in front of a picture of a thin metal hanger, meant to represent one way that women who do not have access to abortions might terminate pregnancies. In a single billboard, MMS’s politics and product collided. "I’m pro-choice and so are many New Yorkers and I just needed to do something about it," she says.
Was she worried that people might boycott MMS because of its politics? It turns out that very few New Yorkers had a problem with the ad. All the unhappy emails came from places like Ohio, which did not matter much, since MMS only has locations in New York. Emboldened by the hanger ad, she launched an entirely political campaign in 2008, that made a dig at Sarah Palin ("What’s more limited? Your closet or her experience?") and George Bush ("Did you 'misunderestimate' your closet space?" Referring to a word that Bush made up). Still, Gottesman held back on doing a similar ad with Condoleezza Rice on it. "We got the feedback that the ad might be perceived as racially provocative, so we decided against it," she says
Then, the recession hit. In 2009, when the company was facing diminished sales, Gottesman tells me that everybody at the company went into panic mode. She decided not to take any risks with the ads but to focus entirely on the product, with ads that highlighted the 17 locations in Manhattan and the free taxi service to the storage sites. It’s hard to make sense of how this new strategy influenced sales, since there were other economic factors at play, but Gottesman says she was itching to reclaim the MMS voice.
In 2011, MMS was back in the game. With the Occupy Wall Street movement in full swing, Gottesman launched the Occupy Us campaign, blending political humor ("If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.") with inside jokes that appealed to New Yorkers ("Remember, if you leave the city, you’ll have to live in America."). One of the ads talked smack about the Mets, asking, "Why leave a city that has six professional sports teams, and also the Mets?" For all the controversial political ads MMS has done, few got New Yorkers up in arms like this one. AdWeek and the New York Times wondered if MMS had gone too far. "They lost my business," said one fan in the comments section of the AdWeek article. "I’m not going to be such a fool as to pay money to those who will kick my favorite team when they’re down."
"We were so surprised by the reaction to the Mets ad. It was just a joke," Gottesman says. But ultimately, she’s not that worried about turning people off. "The product is very good and all we’re doing is trying to build awareness about the brand. If we can get customers into our stores, our sales people can handle it from there."
Given how focused MMS is on the New York audience, with ads that say things like, "Oh yeah, you’ll fit right in in Connecticut" and "Nobody becomes famous in Des Moines," it is clear that the company has perfected the art of speaking to New Yorkers, but does this mean the company will never be able to expand into other cities?
Gottesman doesn’t believe so. She thinks that it would be possible to tailor these snarky ads to any city or location. It’s all about understanding the cultural nuances of your target market, being willing to push people’s buttons and having a good sense of humor. But she also points out that it takes more work to make a mark these days, with brands like JetBlue and Chipotle jumping into the fray with amusing ads that get people’s attention. "A lot of people are doing good ads these days, way more than 20 years ago," Gottesman says. "So the world has upped the ante on being sharp and being funny."