With more than 40 agencies vying for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau account, Bruce Turkel, head of his eponymous Coconut Grove, Florida, ad agency, knew his team would need more than Armani suits and slick visuals to win the bake-off.
Their goal: Learn what makes tourism in the region hotter than Biloxi in August. Their strategy: Rent a 31-foot Winnebago, equip it with computers and art supplies, and hit the highway for five nights of field research. No focus groups, no clipboard-toting researchers accosting folks in malls. "We tried traditional research," says Turkel, "but it wasn't enough. We needed to know why people go there and what they experience."
At night, the Turkel team would stop at RV parks, set up lawn chairs, pop open a cooler of beer, and start jamming on guitars and harmonica. As folks wandered by, they'd offer up drinks and ask, "What are y'all doin' here?"
The answer wasn't what they expected. "We love to gamble," folks invariably said. "And pass me another beer." Existing data, it turned out, drastically understated area casinos' pull. Small wonder: In the Bible Belt, admitting your affinity for the slots could prompt a prayer meeting for your almighty soul. As one guy confessed, "I can't tell my mother-in-law I'm going gambling. She already doesn't like me." And people confessed one thing more: Their lives at home were pretty boring.
Working out of the RV amid bugs, humidity, and a diet of oyster po'boys, the team crafted a pitch with the tagline, "Take Your Life Out for a Spin." The creative morphs images of mundane life — punching a time clock, pumping gas — into roulette wheels and blackjack dealers to depict the Gulf Coast as a nonstop whirl of golf, beaches, and, uh, casinos.
To the convention bureau's board, the message rang true. The Turkel team "got it right," says executive director Stephen Richer. "There's a big difference between doing research at the office and going there."
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.