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Sunday Morning With Rick Looser

Sunday Morning With Rick Looser, 46, Brandon, President and Chief Operating Officer, The Cirlot Agency
By Sid Salter
Perspective Editor
The Clarion Ledger
What was the genesis of the “Mississippi, Believe It!” campaign?
The thought behind the Mississippi, Believe It!™ campaign began with a conversation between people at The Cirlot Agency and Jerry St Pé, Jim McIngvale and Den Knecht – clients of ours from Ingalls Shipbuilding. We traded ideas about how to change Mississippi’s image. The agency came up with some great concepts, but the effort was put on the back burner. A few years later, I was seated next to a 12-year-old boy from Connecticut on a plane headed from D.C. back home. After hearing my Southern accent, he asked where I was from. When I told him I lived in Mississippi, he looked straight at me and asked: “Do you see the Ku Klux Klan on your streets every day and do you hate all black people?” Here was an articulate, private school-educated child – and that was his mental image of Mississippi. The next day, we pulled out our ideas and began formulating the plan to create and execute what is now known as Mississippi, Believe It!™
What has the reaction been to the campaign outside Mississippi and inside the state?
The response has been phenomenal. After giving over 100 interviews, I can tell you that national media has been fascinated by the campaign. Full-length feature stories have appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, US News & World Report, The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun Times, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Times, The Atlanta Journal Constitution . . . the list goes on and on. On radio, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a great story as well as ABC News, Voice of America and NPR’s News and Notes, just to name a few. As far as television, we are currently talking to producers from ABC’s Nightline, CBS’s Evening News, Diane Sawyer at Primetime and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The individual response from people all across the country has been the most surprising part to me. We have received thousands of emails from people who grew up in Mississippi and now live somewhere else, from those who only visited grandparents during the summer vacation and from volunteers who came from all over the country to help after Katrina. Most of their responses are the same: “These ads tell the stories of the real Mississippi I love, keep up the good work.”

What is Mississippi’s image in 2007?

Mississippi’s image in 2007 is a mixed bag. The civil rights atrocities that occurred in Mississippi can’t be washed away with a PR campaign, but that’s not the purpose of Mississippi, Believe It!™ We were our own worst enemy and part of our image will always be tied to that era. But most recently, one of the few good things that came out of Katrina was that the rest of the country got to see Mississippi in a different light. Gov. Haley Barbour’s now famous, “hitch up our britches and start rebuilding” comment, followed by our residents actually putting that comment into action, has put Mississippi in a different light. Mississippi’s reaction to Katrina has given us a “can-do” image across the country – we need to capitalize on that.
Has your campaign helped improve that image? How do you measure the impact?
The most impressive measurement of this campaign from a business standpoint is that through the national and international media coverage it has obtained, Mississippi, Believe It! has garnered over $15 million of positive media coverage. Since The Cirlot Agency paid all out-of-pocket costs and has donated over $300,000 of our services, this campaign did not cost Mississippi one dime. Service Printers of Flowood donated $20,000 in printing for posters that were sent to every school, kindergarten through college, public and private, throughout Mississippi. Teachers have used the posters as part of their lesson plans. The campaign has won some of the most coveted awards in the public relations and advertising industry, including the world-renowned International Gold Quill award. Just as importantly, it has forced the rest of the country to give Mississippi a second look. In My Dog Skip, Willie Morris’ dad delivers one of my favorite lines of all time, “Give a man a label, and you never really need to get to know him.” Mississippi has been given a label, in part, based on the Mississippi of the 1960s. This campaign shows a different side of Mississippi.
What can Mississippi do to most effectively bolster our image?
Working from the outside in, Mississippi can’t sit idly by and let others define who we are. We have to be aggressive in promoting ourselves. We must continue to break down old stereotypes, while embracing our heritage. For example, as the birthplace of the blues, Mississippi should be the No. 1 tourist destination in the world for fans to enjoy blues music. Sadly, that’s not the case. From the inside out, Mississippi must continue to address those things that make us first on every bad list and last on every good list. Education, health care and other quality-of-life issues have to take priority. Throwing money at these problems is not the answer.
Are the state’s tourism and economic development ad campaigns effective?
The Cirlot Agency doesn’t currently work on either campaign, but with all of our clients, we measure our work by the results they achieve. Using that measurement, one can’t argue with the success of Mississippi’s economic development efforts. New projects and expanded industry abound across the state. I personally think that success has more to do with the hard work of Leland Speed, Gray Swoope and the staff of MDA than an ad campaign. As far as the tourism campaign, I don’t really get it. That doesn’t mean it’s not effective; I just don’t like it. I think most tourism ads fall into a trap of trying to show a little bit of everything instead of honing in on one idea. The ads are a shotgun approach instead of a rifle. The shotgun approach is easier to get a large committee to approve; the rifle approach actually works.
What’s the secret of your firm’s success?
The secret of my personal success is marrying above my head. The success of The Cirlot Agency started when my wife, Liza, had the courage to start a company when those in the industry were telling her she would never make it. We’ve worked together for the past 19 years and we both agree that while we have worked hard, the true success of this agency has been a blessing from God. This agency is not who we are; it’s what we do. We were put here for our life to honor God and that’s part of the fabric of our business. From a practical standpoint, we have had to learn to leave work at the office and recognize our differences. Liza is a Harvard-educated, formula-driven thinker who loves a good process worked out over hours of meetings. I’m Alabama-educated, attention span-challenged, trust my gut instinct and would rather have a meeting standing in the hallway. We’re also fortunate to have a great group of highly motivated team members.
– Interview by Perspective Editor Sid Salter