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GUERRILLA GROWS UP: USM&P has evolved from underdog to Big Dog.

By Jun 01, 2000

Jason Moskowitz and Mike Napoliello like to tell the story of how they started their business in high school, scraping together 60 bucks for business cards.

The partners really came of age, though, with Smartfood. The tiny snack brand burst on the scene in 1986, when samplers dressed in giant popcorn bags danced on freeway overpasses and handed out full-sized bags on street corners. By the time Frito-Lay bought Smartfood in 1989, guerrilla marketing was all the rage and the fledgling U.S. Marketing & Promotions was already cementing its reputation as a scrappy street player.

Fast-forward to 2000, and The Little Agency That Could is all grown up. Field-marketing expert USM&P zoomed to the top of the promo 100 this year on the strength of an estimated $50 million in business from Procter & Gamble in 1999. Total net revenues hit $96 million last year, and ceo Moskowitz projects they’ll double again this year.

USM&P’s work for P&G included a September-to-March mall tour launching Dryel, in-store sampling for Pantene and Physique hair care, and demo events for Swiffer cleaning cloths and Febreze fabric spray. The P&G bonanza is “a vindication,” says director of account services Napoliello. “We must be doing something right.”

“People are starting to take us more seriously,” Moskowitz adds. “Field marketing is now built in as part of the marketing mix.”

Take Dryel. P&G wanted to “let consumers touch and feel” the home dry-cleaning system, says assistant brand manager Allen Hwang. “We’re moving to more interaction with consumers.” P&G set strategy and USM&P helped design the Dryel National Mall Tour, which served up fashion shows, celebrity appearances, and demos using full-sized dryers – tricky stuff to execute. “We had a lot of stuff – clothing, brochures, stain swatches, equipment,” Hwang says. “They did a good job handling it.”

Execution is USM&P’s strong suit. “They have outstanding follow-through,” says Larry Raskin, vp-marketing at Hormel Foods. Raskin wanted to upgrade Stagg Chili’s sampling efforts from a single van when Hormel bought Stagg in 1996, but didn’t have enough staff to do it internally. USM&P built a three-van, year-round program that’s turnkey for Hormel. “They run the whole thing,” Raskin says. “I have complete trust in them.”

MORE ARMS AND LEGS, STAT

How can a field-marketing shop grow so fast and still deliver on all the details? Moskowitz credits ProStar, software he wrote to plan and track campaigns. The system “lets one person do the work of 10,” Moskowitz says, through a database of stores, retailers’ sampling specs, headshots, and stats of 20,000 part-time staffers – a vast library of nitty-gritty. The shop has its own p.r. and travel departments, and outsources nothing, Moskowitz claims. “If we need uniforms for a sampling program, we make them in-house.”

That can-do attitude is also USM&P’s weak point. The agency didn’t tell Dryel’s brand team about problems with P&G’s other vendors for the tour, so “we weren’t executing optimally for two-thirds of the tour,” Hwang says. “I could have handled it better if they told me sooner, but they wanted to fix it themselves.”

The California locale makes it easy for USM&P to recruit full-time staffers, who now number 410. Growth so far has been organic, but USM&P may buy something this year.

The shop has also bridged into dot-com work, fielding events for Petopia.com and grocery delivery service Pinkdot.com. For Petopia.com, which launched last August, USM&P sent “ambassadors” to pet events across the U.S. with computer kiosks to give pet owners a tour of the site. Gift certificates were distributed at events and an online sweeps drove repeat traffic.

“Dot-coms will be the biggest benefactors of field marketing,” Napoliello predicts. “Packaged goods have a tangible, real-world presence. You won’t see Petopia.com anywhere. We can bring a tangible presence to brands that don’t have any bricks and mortar.”

How does a strategy honed with scrappy second-tier brands play with leaders like P&G?

“Underdogs are quicker, they take more risks, they’re open to more options,” Napoliello says. “But … bigger brands aren’t resting on their laurels. Our strategies haven’t changed; brands’ attitudes have.”

For an agency that built its business with underdogs, USM&P is fitting in nicely with the big dogs.