Gambling in this country is wide open as a Vegas billboard, except for a few holdouts such as Alabama, where the only sure bet is the occasional failed plunge at a state lottery.
So it’s no small wonder that one of the most successful ad agencies working the national gaming circuit is headquartered in south Alabama, in Mobile.
“The gaming category has been a very good one for us, and we were early past the post on it,” says Rich Sullivan, CEO of Red Square advertising agency. “It allowed us to grow into a national agency and enabled us to do work outside of the category. And for us to be in the state of Alabama is especially unusual.”
Lodged in the Port City’s historic downtown, the colorful co-working spaces of this 75-employee ad agency contrast sharply with the staid, brick storefronts of St. Emanuel Street.
Red Square represents a constellation of Native American tribal casinos across the country, including the country’s largest tribe — The Cherokee Nation, in Oklahoma — and largest tribal casino — Foxwood, in Connecticut.
“We have been working in gaming close to 20 years, but we really began building steam 15 years ago,” says Sullivan. “We worked with the Poarch Creek Tribe before it became Wind Creek Hospitality. They were very instrumental in our growth.”
Headquartered in Atmore, in Escambia County, the Poarch Creek Tribe started gaming in 1985 in a 1,500-seat high-stakes bingo hall — the Creek Bingo Palace — on tribal land, one year after becoming the first federally recognized tribe in Alabama. Now doing business as Wind Creek Hospitality, the venture supports the welfare of the tribe with a spread of casinos that includes Atmore, Montgomery and Wetumpka in Alabama, Gardendale in Nevada, and the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao.
“When I was in college, tribal casino gambling was at the very beginning of that industry,” says Sullivan, who took charge of the agency in 2005, after the retirement of his father, Richard Sullivan, who helped found the agency in 1977.
“When I got to the agency, I thought that if we got some expertise we could differentiate ourselves and build the expertise in the category to grow,” says Sullivan. “Now gaming is an incredibly large industry that has grown across the country.”
Tribal gaming, the segment of the industry Red Square is most active in, grew in the same timeline as the agency to become a close contender to the older, commercial Las Vegas-type enterprise. According to the most recent (2018) State of the States report by the American Gaming Association, tribal gaming revenues hit a record $32.4 billion in 2017, compared to commercial gaming, which was $40 billion. And tribal casinos now operate in 28 states, compared with commercial casino gaming in 24 states.
Along with the gaming side of this industry comes a raft of other enterprises and the separate flood of marketing that goes with it.
“You can think of the gaming industry as a retail business, as well,” says Sullivan. “They have a lot of hotels and restaurants and music, the retail side, multi-amenity properties. You’re selling a lot of entertainment, an amenity-driven property within a property.
“Foxwoods, our client in Connecticut, they have 55 restaurants and bars. Think about all the marketing that goes on. You’ve got a lot of calendars to manage, shows to sell tickets to. They are really 24-hour-a-day retail advertising clients. That creates tremendous challenges in managing the logistics. In 2018 we completed more than 17,000 pieces of creative.”
Keeping track of that work is the responsibility of Joa Pope, Red Square vice president of creative operations, who recently came to the agency from the parks division of Disney in Orlando.
“A lot of the accounts are these large promotions for casino clients, across 30 different types of media channels, on the properties or their website,” says Pope.
“Casino work, by the nature of the market, is very quick turnaround and a fast-paced type partnership with clients. If the competition is going to run a cash promotion within a range of dollars and attract the same type clientele, you have to come to their defense.”
“In 2007 we had about 24 employees, and now 75, so it has more than doubled,” says Sarah Jones, Red Square president and head of account services. “On one specific occasion, with The Cherokee Nation, we took on a much larger piece of business, and we suddenly had to hire 22 people.
“That piece of business is still a client, and for us to become trusted partners helps us keep those longer relationships. Any client can hire a vendor. We want to be hired to partner, to share information about their business. Our best client relationships come out of our viewing ourselves as a partner and not just a vendor.”
“Because of our work in the gaming category, we are able to be incredibly selective about the work we do outside of the gaming category,” says COO Elena Freed, who, besides overseeing administration and human resources is also involved in business development. “The majority of the work we are going after outside of casino and hospitality tends to be highly strategic and often digital in nature. This work is getting noticed by bigger brands, which is making it easier to get meetings with large corporations across a variety of spaces.”
One of the most recent new clients is Cedars-Sinai, in Los Angeles, where Red Square has a project helping with social media.
Red Square also is currently doing projects for Hilton Worldwide, Nescafe Canada, New York Pride, Cartelligent in San Francisco, and Swell Creative Group in Los Angeles. Current project work also includes some leading Alabama names —Austal USA, CPSI, Hibbett Sports and the University of Alabama.
Sullivan says gaming clients currently represent about 60 percent of agency business but have been a foundation for nongaming growth and new geographic territory.
“When I got here, my goal was to build a national agency, and we’re well on our way. Gaming allowed us to grow.”
Gaming clients now include Rivers Casinos, headquartered in the Chicago area, with casinos near Chicago and in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Red Square recently opened an office in Chicago.
From L.A. to Chicago to Connecticut, by way of Mobile, Alabama: It may not be an obvious course for building a national advertising agency, but for Rich Sullivan and Red Square, it is proving to be a strategically sound one.
Chris McFadyen is editorial director of Business Alabama.