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The Zoo Guy's clam to fame Featured

10:01am EDT July 22, 2002

For the last four years, Saul Markowitz has been known as "The Zoo Guy." Director Barbara Baker and Markowitz's marketing department took the Pittsburgh Zoo from a withering nonevent to one of the city's favorite places to be. True, privatization and Regional Asset District Funds played an important role, but without an aggressive campaign to awaken Pittsburgh to changes at the zoo, it could well have been a case of throwing good money after bad. And it all started with a clam.

In 1994, Markowitz and Marc Advertising began their "But have you seen the Quahog Clam" campaign. A series of TV, radio and other media spots appeared, featuring all the animals at the Pittsburgh Zoo and leaving one unseen, hinting that, unless you've seen the clam, you haven't seen the zoo. Although it really was just a clam, the campaign worked, spurring the zoo to its second busiest season ever without even featuring a new attraction.

Markowitz kept hammering home one imaginative campaign after another. Four years later, attendance is up almost 50 percent-more than 770,000 people visited the zoo last year. Membership is up and major sponsors including AT&T and Duquesne Light have lent their names and assistance.

To get the zoo there, Markowitz used a blend of marketing and public relations with a couple of ideas: use humor and get media attention with advertising. It's the same formula he used at the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Benedum Theater for the Performing Arts and Carnegie Mellon University's College of Fine Arts.

In April 1997, Markowitz took the leap and started his own business. Now, as Markowitz Communications, his team still works with the zoo's lions and tigers and bears, as well as other corporate and nonprofit clients across the region.

In this month's One On One interview, Markowitz tells how he turns humor and a low budget into effective publicity and media attention-even for the lowly clam.

How do you get so much attention for your clients with so small a budget?

You have to be very proactive in what you're doing, PR-wise, marketingwise, promotionwise, everything, because no one will do anything for you unless you ask for it. It's not every day that you have Phantom coming in. I always say that in the theater world. It works for any other clients we have, as well.

When I was with the Benedum, I liked the shows that were tougher to sell; it got you thinking more. Like when Michael Feinstein came in. The first time they booked him was the same night as the Rat Pack at the Civic Arena. Think about it, the same audience, and nobody knew who Michael Feinstein was, nobody had a clue. So tickets weren't selling that well. One of the things I always loved to do was try to make people have more fun trying to buy tickets. One of the ideas I had was, let's get people to sing for their tickets. People knew [Feinstein] as this Gershwin expert ... So what we did was we had people come to the box office and sing Gershwin for a dollar off.

That was the other funny angle to this-what would you do for a buck? Why give them half off? I think a buck's funnier, because it's like, are you that silly, that you're willing to take only a buck to do this?

And the other thought behind this was, as a PR person, how can you do a promotion, not just because you want to sell tickets, but to do it so you get some press on it too. So, the idea was, if you get people to sing Gershwin, people might buy tickets, but we can also get some media attention. When you have a small budget in the nonprofit world, you've got to think of anything possible to get the word out.

I remember Lynn Cullen did this really funny story. She wore a sandwich board up on Forbes and Murray, and it said, "Sing Gershwin to me." It was very fun. The box office thought I was the biggest idiot in the world, but ... it became this tradition. Shows would come in, and it wouldn't be just about doing the media relations about the performer that's coming in, setting up the interviews and doing that kind of stuff. It was also coming up with some kind of promotion.

We did one with the Clancy Brothers once, this Irish band that was coming in to perform for St. Patrick's Day. Tickets weren't selling very well, so I decided to give away a trip for two to Dublin. But it wasn't Dublin, Ireland, it was Dublin, Ohio. That was funnier.

We wanted to make it a really silly trip. You didn't want to just take a promotion and do it, you wanted to take a promotion that was going to get you some press, which means you take it as far as you can go without looking really stupid. So it would be really tongue in cheek. You'll see a lot of that moved into the things we've done at the zoo.

You had to find your way there, that was the other thing - you had to drive to Dublin. Then [the winner] was also invited to a sausage and pancake breakfast the next morning at a Chevrolet dealership in Dublin, and also to be in the parade with Lucky the Leprechaun. This whole weekend was the silliest. If you really want to party, this was your weekend. That was the first prize.

Let me tell you something. That show sold like that-just to win that damn trip. There were two ways of winning it-either you can buy a ticket, or you have to write a limerick and say why you deserve to win a trip for two to Dublin, Ohio. It was unbelievable. This promotion just kicked butt.

Do you specialize in nonprofits?

Really, we don't. We have some corporate accounts-we actually are doing a little of everything now. We're handling all of CoGo's now, the "Who knew" concept.

We try our best to push the envelope ... in this market it's really important to stand out. There's a limit, too, but you need to stand out. My motto's always been 'do good work, but don't mess anyone over.' People will respect you.

Ever done anything that was over the line?

We did one once, at the zoo. I got a call from Scott Paulson over at WDVE. He had this idea for Valentine's Day and animals doing it. This was two years ago. So we invited 10 couples to come, we did a live remote in the Tropical Rain Forest complex, and they all got a camera, and the first couple that photographed two animals doing it wins $500.

It went over the line a little bit. It worked very well for us, actually. But I know that my boss over there was thinking that might be a little bit too much, for a family place.

What made it over the line, your boss being unhappy with it?

I just think that it was so different for the zoo that it might have been a bit too much. The consequences were that it worked very well, but it was the one promotion that we'd done that Barbara Baker said we'd never do again.

We've always pushed the envelope. Over at the zoo, we work with Marc Advertising on the creative, and one of the charges I've given those guys is that we have to do creative that stands out in the market, and doesn't look local, that people look forward to seeing.

The clam was the first for the zoo, the beginning of the whole thing. He was our 'clam' to fame. When I first started in April 1994, they brought me in as the first PR and marketing director the zoo had ever had. One of the things [Zoo Director] Barbara Baker told me was that we needed to get the awareness out quickly.

The image of the zoo was really awful. The thought behind it was, what can we do very quickly to change the image that the zoo is a smelly, caged-up place to go? I thought, let's focus on an animal that no one's ever heard of. We had lions, we had tigers and bears, we know that; we're a zoo. We had this list of animals you can adopt at the zoo, and the last animal at the bottom you can adopt for 15 bucks is the Quahog Clam.

There was a little bit of internal strife on this one, because it was so different. You know, why weren't you talking about my elephant? We started working up this idea of signage throughout the zoo, to make it more fun. Let's make it like a game. We got a banner that said when you walked in, "Home of the Quahog Clam," signs that said "500 feet to the clam." And then the payoff in the tank, that the clam is really nothing. The sign said, "What did you expect from a clam, standup comedy?"

But the idea behind this clam thing, we tied it into everything we did that year. We tagged our press releases to say, "Home of the Quahog Clam." And then the media started really talking more about the zoo. They'd say, "Hey, you're the clam people!"

It was just the right timing for everything. It got people that hadn't been to the zoo in a long time. If they just came to see the stupid clam, that's fine with me. The point was, you had to go almost throughout the entire zoo to get there. People would walk through and say, "I didn't know the zoo was so great." And then, that damn clam. Maybe they didn't like it, but by then, they already saw the zoo.

It sounds like you had to convince people inside the zoo to change some images they had of themselves. How do you change the clients' image of themselves?

You don't hide anything from them. If you really work along as a team on this stuff, they know you're not just doing it for yourself. You're doing it for what's best for the zoo. When they start seeing results it's very easy to get people on your side.

Barbara was more into it than some of the other people at the zoo at the time. Barbara had this great line. She said, "You don't have to like the clam, you just have to respect it."

In the beginning it was tough, because it was so different. I decided to present the campaign in front of the entire staff. Anyone who has any questions, if they're talking about us now, to my face they'll have to say something.

I remember rolling the TV in, and here's this new little guy. I remember rolling the TV in and saying, "I know there's been some rumbling, and you're not really sure what we're trying to do in the PR/Marketing department. This will be a new tradition. I'm going to present my campaign every year to you guys, so you can take a look at it."

So I showed it, and they laughed their heads off. After the meeting, people came up to say how much they appreciated that we did that. I said, you can always come in my office, if you have any ideas, you let us know.

Another thing I tried to do was to give everyone their due, their 15 minutes, and do it quickly. When I first started at [Carnegie Mellon University], people in the departments said to me, "I want you to do this story." They were so used to the PR people not really doing it. I decided to give each one of them their hit, real early. People would come up to me after that and say, "Do you think this is a story?" They weren't forcing you into it; they were asking your opinion. It became more of a 'let's work together on this thing.' Same thing with the zoo. Show them that you know what you're doing up front, then people come to you and go, "I have an idea." It's a whole different feeling than saying 'you better do this or that.' It makes life much easier for the department, too.