Adman without the attitude revisits storied Redwood City billboard

in Community/Featured/Headline

Once upon a time there lived an ugly duckling, a poor little fellow who was pecked and pushed about and made fun of because of his unattractiveness. His siblings were spiteful to him. Even his mother, who first thought he might be a turkey, had to admit he hadn’t turned out very well.

But then one day the duckling heard that a magician from Palo Alto had come to town, an advertising man adept in the art of transformation. The ugly duckling – written off by many, in fact, as a “dead” duck – pleaded for an intervention. The result was a shoestring advertising campaign with twists and surprises right out of a storybook, including a court fight that made the front pages, newspaper contests, and, eventually a happy ending and acclaim for the duckling with an inner swan.

It was Addison “Buz” Olian who planted the controversial billboard on U.S. 101 in 1993 that helped the downtrodden downtown Redwood City begin to emerge — and gave the naysayers an attitude adjustment.

“I think it’s every ad man’s dream to have the advertising for his or her client become noteworthy,” Olian recalled, about that promotional shot heard round the world. “And when we found out that people thought the board was either, a.) creative and fun, or b.) controversial, we knew that we’d achieved our objective, which was to create awareness for downtown Redwood City. So I was happy.”

Relative newcomers to Redwood City may find it hard to imagine a time when downtown was pretty much the opposite of what it is today: a hub on the Peninsula for entertainment, packed wall-to-wall on weekends with theater — and concert-goers who have their pick of trendy restaurants and pubs. Yet in 1989, when Olian moved his growing advertising agency from Palo Alto to an office above today’s Vesta restaurant on Broadway, his staff marveled at the $2 sandwiches (versus $5). The J.C. Penney had left. A See’s Candy and a curio shop with no name on it were among the few stores.

Like the truth, the sobriquet “Deadwood City” hurt.

“Walking into our agency one day,” said Olian, who was its president and creative director, “I get a message that there are six people in the lobby that want to meet with me. They represented the Downtown Merchants Association and asked if he could help them.

“And I said, ‘Help you do what?’ And they said, ‘Help us with anything. We want some business here.’

“And so I said, ‘From my experience, there’s not a lot of business happening here,’” Olian responded.

“And they said, ‘Precisely. We want you to attract business.’”

The group didn’t have much money but Olian, who has always believed in giving back to his community, agreed to create a campaign — for free — with the proviso that, once the merchants had made their choice, they couldn’t make major changes to it.

His staff went to work. “The ideas came forward and each one was better than the next one because the people in my firm had a lot of pleasure in doing this,” Olian said.

Meanwhile, he was looking for billboard space, also known as “outdoor advertising.” Renting one, which could reach 50,000 to 100,000 people per day, could cost around $20,000. In the first of many surprises, some short-term billboard space came up before one came down and the next went up.  All it cost the merchants was $1,500 to paint the board, plus about $6,500 to rent the space, in a prime location on northbound U.S. 101, near Whipple Avenue.

But what to say on it? When Olian presented the various ideas his staff had developed, the downtown association group had “an emotional reaction” to the one they chose: “Palo Alto without the attitude. Beautiful Downtown Redwood City.” It was intended to begin to position the downtown area and generate awareness through tongue-in-cheek humor. (Olian relented and let them add a tagline: “Once Again, Thursday Nights Are Something Special!”)

“A date was set for the outdoor to go up,” Olian recalled, “and I’ll never forget what happened next.”

Some of the merchants started to get cold feet. “What happens when this goes up and Palo Alto won’t come shopping?” he was asked.

“I said, ‘Are you sure they won’t?’

“And they said, ‘Not really because they don’t come here now.’”

Nonetheless, concern about possibly alienating “Palo Alto” was building – not in Palo Alto, but among a   faction in Redwood City. They also contended that they hadn’t been consulted. “It’s a public embarrassment to Redwood City merchants,” said Don Saye, chairman of the other downtown group. The billboard was being painted and, in a last-ditch effort to stop it from going up, they went to San Mateo County Superior Court to get a temporary restraining order.

That, OIian said, “is when everything hit the fan. … It became so amazingly explosive because it was a free speech issue.”  The billboard feud among rival merchant groups became a big news story.

The suit went nowhere, but the upset merchants made up flyers to hand out to customers with a photo of the billboard and “No” across it.  As a result of the complaints, the Downtown Association decided not to do the full three-month run and to ask the public to submit their own replacement slogan. “Everybody wants to be an ad man,” antiques dealer Joe Steinfeld observed, as the contest entries poured in.

The Peninsula Times Tribune, meanwhile, got into the act too, and launched a “Give Us Your Attitude” contest, which opened the floodgates – with some hilarious results. Readers could submit slogans for both “Beautiful Downtown Redwood City” and “Beautiful Downtown Palo Alto,” with $100 prizes to spend in the two downtowns as prizes.

Columnist Mark Simon kept the pot stirring, and the newspaper received more than 200 entries. Forty-eight of them were sent in by the winner of the Redwood City contest, Lori Rogers of Palo Alto (“Now that we have your attention.”) For the Palo Alto billboard, winner Heather White submitted “This billboard must be removed (Municipal Zoning Ordinance 1,732,664).”

In the end, as the trade publication “California Ad News” noted, the billboard controversy garnered nearly $300,000 in free media attention for the $8,000 campaign, received 13 front-page stories in local newspapers and 38 features, extensive radio and TV coverage and three local newspaper naming contests.  Olian’s agency received local and national awards.

“You know what happened?” Olian continued. “Palo Alto came to us and said, ‘If you can do this for Redwood City, can you do it for us?’” Addison Olian subsequently created several marketing campaigns for Palo Alto, among them the launch of the sustainable energy program and an art center membership and awareness promotion.

Without the lawsuit, “I think it would have just been an interesting advertising message that was controversial for about a minute and would have gone away,” Olian said.

But the ugly duckling had the last quack.

About a decade later, redevelopment was starting to bubble in downtown Redwood City — with new “attitudes” and serious money for comprehensive marketing — and Addison Olian was brought in to create awareness. The Downtown Precise Plan established the framework. Olian credits city leadership and Redevelopment Agency Manager Susan Moeller for the turnaround, as well as “visionary” developer John Anagnostou. He had purchased the Fox Theatre and other downtown buildings and thought, by removing a 1939 addition to the old San Mateo County Courthouse, the entire area could be opened up to create a public space, like a piazza.

Through several years of planning and construction, Addison Olian worked to communicate to the public what was happening, to attract developers to invest in Redwood City, and, when Courthouse Square emerged as the heart of the city, “to invite people in.”

One of the agency’s campaign, which was directed at developers, portrayed sparks flying and encouraged them to get in on a hot opportunity. As the new Century 20 Theatre and surrounding space were being built, posters announced that “You’ll Really Dig What’s Happening Here. Movies, cafes, nightlife and much more, coming here soon.” Theatre Way got its name. Other signs touted the movies and concerts that would be part of the new downtown. Addison Olian created a pocket map showing every store and place where people could spend their time and money, a pre-digital map in paper form. Olian’s agency spearheaded the creative efforts and also brought in outside talent including Green Tea and copywriter Mike Fusello to work on the campaigns. The overall promise in one simple message: “It’s gonna be big.”

And when Courthouse Square debuted in 2006, when people started to show up downtown, the transformation of the derided duckling into a bona fide swan was complete.

“It was astounding,” Olian said. “It’s as if a light switch was turned on and that light was shining on this little town that had been so sleepy for so long. And people finally started to become aware of it. And it was very gratifying.”

He sold his agency in 2010 and is now living in Sausalito. In hindsight, there was an inevitability about the new downtown because of the convergence of many factors, including land prices, timing, vision, investment and the Precise Plan, he said. That first billboard might have been “a preamble to what was going to eventually occur,” but when the time was ripe for redevelopment, attitudes about the future of downtown had shifted. “The easy job,” Olian said, “was to figure out how to make it interesting.”

This story was originally published in the July print edition of Climate Magazine.