OTIS CONNER PRESENTS A RATHER interesting study. With a braid of hair hanging halfway down his back, a diamond stud in one ear, a Bentley in front of his office, and a wife 20 years his junior, he sounds like a fellow who'd come across in person as a bumptious operator. Not so. As the advertising mogul politely shows a guest around his posh North Dallas production studio, he instead proves himself a softspoken gentleman. And a wealthy one.
The 55-year-old Conner says his closely held company, the Axcess Group, saw revenues of $20 million in 2002. He employs about 60 people-producers, video editors, and more than 40 contract writers. Conner has enjoyed the fruits of his firm's success. The Bentley shares garage space with a Rolls Royce and a Porsche at his $750,000 Willow Bend home. And there are plans for a second home in Colorado. Not bad for a guy whose career began on the back of a flatbed truck.
In the early '60s, young Otis, his three brothers, and his sister performed as a sort of Beverly Hillbillies version of the von Trapp family, entertaining in supermarket parking lots across Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The Conner Family graduated to rodeos and county fairs before eventually appearing on bills with the Beach Boys, the Smothers Brothers, and Sonny and Cher. Today, he uses his musical talents in the advertising business. He cut his teeth at what is now TM Century, where, by all accounts, Connor was a prolific writer and an ace presenter. He founded Otis Conner Productions, now Axcess Group, in 1978.
The exterior of the company's headquarters on Spring Valley Road is prosaic. But inside, the place is a treat: polished hardwood floors, buttery leather sofas, soft lighting, and contemporary art. The atmosphere at Axcess is at once sublime, creative, and what you might expect from a successful media company. With a flourish Conner shows off the office of Coke Johnson, who has worked with Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and Bob Dylan. Over here stands a grand piano that Conner says Fats Domino used to record.
"Blueberry Hill." But the well-turned-out office goes mostly unseen by anyone but Conner and his staff. Only occasionally do clients visit, as Conner's success hinges on a throwback to his early days in showbiz: he takes his show on the road.
Imagine you own a chain of detail shops in, say, Scottsdale, Arizona. Though you earn a good living with your four stores, you could never afford to hire a company to produce a sophisticated television commercial to draw more dirty cars onto your lots. That could easily cost $100,000. You're already running a few late-night amateurish spots when your sales rep at the TV station offers you a chance to pump up your business with a slick new commercial produced by a national firm-for free.
So you sign up for a 90-minute-plus consultation and report to a hotel suite. There, synthesizers, speakers, and other hightech audio equipment surround you. And you meet a man who plays for you a succession of celebrated commercials from Coke, Coors, Miller, Ford, McDonald's. At the end of the presentation comes the implication that your 30-second spot will be written and produced by the same people responsible for the most recognizable advertising campaigns of all time. Again, for free. What could be better?
Otis Conner asks you questions about your business, how it stands apart from your competitors, what message you want to communicate. Then he vanishes behind a curtain, so to speak, leaving you to doubt or dream while he works. A half hour later, with the sounds of an orchestra filling the room, Conner reappears and sings your jingle to an original score. And if the most pleasing sound in the world to a man is the sound of his own name, the most pleasing sound in the world to a retailer is the sound of his free commercial. All you have to do is buy the television airtime-which you were already buying-and you get a spot you otherwise could not afford. Sounds like a win-win, yes?
What you don't realize is that the man behind the curtain has at his fingertips a huge database of canned music, and, in hotel suites coast to coast, crackerjack salespeople are making similar presentations to other business owners just like you. From LA to Parkersberg, West Virginia, they are playing the same music and giving the same spiel, signing up scores of clients each week.
For Conner, every mom-and-pop mattress store, every usedcar lot, every discount-tire dealer, every independent pharmacy or pet shop is a candidate for what he calls "musicdriven advertising" (at Axcess, using the word "jingle" is blasphemous). The jingle business isn't rocket science, and, with practice, it's a cinch to tweak a slogan so that it can be recycled for several clients. Every retailer in the world promotes just four things: service, selection, price, and location.
In the early '90s, Dallas writer Spencer Michlin, a sometimes contributor to D Magazine and an adman who has for years worked with Pepsi, was among the many writers who contracted with Axcess to churn out countless jingles. Several times a year, copywriters like Michlin from around the country would convene in Dallas to spend a long weekend holed up together, brainstorming and creating fresh material for Axcess. It was during one of those sessions that Michlin wrote a catchy little line for a fictional homebuilder about "affording your dreams."
Axcess later revised and sold that slogan to Freed's Home Furnishings. Commercials using that jingle still air in the Dallas market. But Axcess also sold that same jingle, with altered lyrics, to an outfit called Derby Savings Bank in Connecticut.
The concept of selling a jingle in multiple markets isn't original. TM Century, where Conner learned the business, maintains something called the JingleBank from which clients around the world choose prerecorded music. The music is then matched with catchy lyrics and played on radio, TV, telephone hold messages, and more. TM Century keeps thorough records of who buys what to ensure that more than one client in a given market doesn't end up with the same tune. But whereas TM's clients know they're purchasing stock music, Conner's clients aren't told. And he wouldn't tell us, either--Conner refused to talk about the particulars of his operation, calling his business plan and marketing strategy "proprietary, trademarked."
D Magazine learned of Axcess' proprietary methods from talking to a number of former business partners of Conner, most of whom asked not to be identified. One said he feared retribution from the "grand earl of the jingle world." But they all say Conner will do whatever it takes to make the sale. One former associate says Conner closes 80 percent of his prospects, deftly plowing down objections and leaving even savvy clients questioning their own judgment. He believes the customer is clueless and cares little about long-term relationships with the retailers for whom he creates commercials.
"I couldn't care less if the client likes the commercial," Conner says, indignation slipping into his voice. "Our clients don't tell us what to write. There's no give-and-take. They've never written a campaign."
He can afford to say this because the small-time retailers don't pay his bills. Remember, the commercials are free. So, really, they aren't his clients. And here's the real genius of Otis Conner: the TV stations are his actual clients. Conner takes a cut of the revenues generated when advertisers extend existing contracts or sign new ones. One source says Conner takes 30 percent.
Though no affiliates in the Dallas-Fort Worth market work with Conner, the 2001 annual report of WRGB-TV in Albany, New York, states that Axcess provided the station with $1 million in unforeseen revenue. In the report, General Manager Matt Sames said, "This really saved our bacon."
Bob Shannon, a former Dallas resident who worked with Conner in the early '80s, calls Conner a charismatic and crafty salesman and a super-smart businessman. "He could sell refrigerators to Eskimos," Shannon says. "He understands the business of business better than anyone I have ever met. He takes advantage of situations as they come to him. Do people who do business with him win as big as he does? No. He won't get the humanitarian award, but I don't know many businessmen who would."
But Conner has received scores of awards from the advertising industry, and he claims even more. In fact, Axcess takes credit for six of the top 10 U.S. advertising campaigns of all time. Conner's resume states that he "has written and produced musical campaigns for McDonald's, Diet Coke, Texaco, and Crest." He says other writers at Axcess wrote Miller, Bud, and Ford. But calls to these companies could not confirm this. In its history, Miller Brewing Company has worked with only one Dallas-based ad agency, Square One. The company has no record of ever working with Conner or Axcess. Ford works with J. Walter Thompson, a division of Ogilvy & Mather, which handles Coke. No one contacted at either of these agencies had heard of Otis Conner.
And the claim about McDonald's is most curious. One former associate says that Conner, depending on whom he's talking to, will sometimes take credit for the "You Deserve a Break Today" campaign, going so far as to tell a story about a eureka moment he had on a golf course with McDonald's founder Ray Kroc. In an interview with D Magazine, Conner allowed that Dallas writer Kevin Gavin actually penned it. But because Conner has from time to time called upon Gavin to create campaigns for Axcess, the McDonald's claim has made its way onto Conner's resume.
The truth is that the creation, production, and management of McDonald's "You Deserve a Break Today" campaign is widely credited to DDB Worldwide, though it does appear that Gavin was instrumental in its conception. No one contacted at DD13 Worldwide recognized the names Otis Conner or the Axcess Group. Gavin would not return calls.
The arrangement that Conner has with writers like Gavin is a bit complicated. Simply put, though, Conner pays a fee to the writers behind well-known campaigns so that he can include their work in his company's portfolio. Some of the writers provide Axcess with generic jingles for future campaigns, which will be sold through television stations nationwide. But neither Conner nor Axcess has anything to do with the famous brands trumpeted during his presentations.
His whole scheme really is amazing, if for no other reason than it seems to work so brilliantly. It's legal, it's effective, and it keeps a guy in diamonds. Even former associates who have no affection for Conner will admit that the man's operation is a thing to behold. It's all a matter of perception. As Nicolas Cage's character says in the movie Matchstick Men, "Some call it lying. Some call it sales."
Copyright D Magazine Dec 01, 2003
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