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Ocean City to review marketing contract with Baltimore’s MGH

Ocean City may find itself without its most famous lifeguard if the City Council chooses not to renew its contract with Baltimore-based MGH Inc., the advertising agency behind the highly successful “Rodney Saves” campaign.

MGH created the ‘Rodney the lifeguard’ character for Ocean City in 2009.

MGH has handled the beach town’s marketing for the past decade, and most people said the relationship has been lucrative. But the agency’s current two-year contract will expire at the end of this year, and some Ocean City council members said it’s appropriate to review other proposals.

Councilman Brent Ashley said the council is obligated to seek the most competitive rate available. The council voted 4-3 on Monday to begin shopping around after the Nov. 6 election.

“We owe it to the taxpayers,” Ashley said. “We want to get the maximum bang for our buck.”

Others, however, said it doesn’t make sense to conduct a review given the success of MGH’s ad campaigns and its affordable rates.

“The facts do not present any reason why MGH should be fired,” Councilwoman Mary Knight said. “I’m very passionate about this because I just don’t think that’s smart business.”

Commercials featuring Rodney the lifeguard first aired in July 2009 and have become well-known among locals. But if the character’s popularity isn’t enough to ensure his job security, at least his track record should be, Knight said.

“The best way to show the success of Rodney is how well Ocean City held up during the depths of the recession,” MGH President Andy Malis said. “In 2009, the research showed nobody was going on vacation. The whole strategy behind the Rodney campaign was … created specifically for that time.”

While tourism plummeted at Virginia Beach, Va., and other nearby getaway spots that year, “Ocean City remained flat — and flat was huge,” Malis said.

Ashley, however, said the city might be paying too much for MGH’s services.

“We’ve spent millions more on advertising [since partnering with the agency], but our tourism numbers don’t move,” he said. “We’ve averaged 4.2 million [people] for 20 years. So we’re spending more money but not attracting more people. The numbers speak for themselves.”

But those numbers aren’t infallible. Several people said tracking the flow of tourists is difficult, and the Tourism Advisory Board of Ocean City voted unanimously to stay the course with MGH.

The council also reviewed the MGH contract in 2009; it was renewed after the agency submitted the best bid in a blind rating, Knight said. Conducting the same “laborious process” simultaneously with other agenda items, such as updating the strategic plan, would be ill-advised, she added.

Without MGH, Knight said the city may forgo hidden financial benefits it has enjoyed because of the enduring relationship. Ocean City has received millions in value-added services, according to Knight’s estimates, such as waived administration fees and other “services we just aren’t charged for,” she said.

If the city does not renew the contract, Rodney the lifeguard will be out of a job and the agency will have to bid goodbye to a loyal client. But for Malis, the review is just business as usual.

“We’re not worried at all,” Malis said. “We have a great relationship with the town. I would predict we’re going to have this account for many years to come.”

Ocean City spends about $5 million on advertising annually. It’s a “high profile” account, Malis said, but losing it wouldn’t spell financial doom for the agency.

MGH’s clientele includes dozens of iconic regional brands, including Utz, Old Bay, Smyth Jewelers and the National Aquarium.

“How fortunate is the town of Ocean City to have a partner like that?” Knight asked.

“It’ll take a lot of the department heads’ time,” she added. “To me, things were going really well. We could have put it off for a year. There’s so many things going in Ocean City — we’re getting a new city manager and doing planning in the fall. … This is one item that didn’t need to be tackled now because of the success of the campaign and the city right now.”