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Homegrown firm fares well amid national competition

Biloxi advertising agency capitalizes on casino market

BILOXI – You might call Laura Hasty and Robin Stephens the Dixie Chicks of advertising.

As owners of The Ad Group Inc., the only full-service advertising agency in Mississippi concurrently handling two casino properties, the plucky advertising veterans have made the most of being in the right place at the right time.

“We were fortunate to get in on the ground floor in the casino industry and learned how casinos operated,” said Hasty, president of The Ad Group. “You might say we were acclimated by fire, but we’ve stuck with it and have been richly rewarded.”

Hasty and Stephens met in the early 1990s at Gulf Coast-based Gray Advertising Marketing and Public Relations. Hasty, a former sales manager for radio stations WZKX/WROA in Gulfport and WVMI/WQID in Biloxi, had extensive advertising experience, from media buying to full advertising campaigns. At Gray Advertising, she handled Mississippians for Jobs, the campaign that led to the passage of legislation allowing dockside gaming in Harrison County in March 1992.

In the spring of 1992, Hasty landed Casino Magic Bay St. Louis and Casino Magic Biloxi as new accounts for Gray Advertising. Stephens, who had previously worked as a graphic artist for Signs Now, Advantage Printers and Gulf Printing & Advertising, joined Gray Advertising around that time. Both assisted in the opening of the Casino Magic properties. In January 1995, they left Gray Advertising to open The Ad Group.

“We learned all that we could about how casinos work and how they get people in the door,” Hasty said. “We also knew that, with casino clients, we were not going to be a ‘9 to 5’ agency. When you do casino work, you have to work when they do, including being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Since Hasty and Stephens opened The Ad Group, casino clients have included Boomtown Casino, Casino Magic and President Casino Broadwater Resort. Last year, after another company acquired Boomtown Casino and Casino Magic Bay St. Louis, but not Casino Magic Biloxi, The Ad Group resigned the Casino Magic Biloxi account “so there wouldn’t be a conflict,” Hasty said.

Earlier this month, 16 people were injured when a man started firing a handgun inside of Casino Magic Biloxi. Four people were shot, including the shooter, who died from a self-inflicted wound.

“If an incident like that happened, we’d call in our staff no matter what time of the day or night,” Hasty said. “Even though casinos have their own inside PR people, we try to help as much as we can because the PR blows into advertising. In certain instances like that one, they’ll probably advertise about safety because there’s a bad taste in everyone’s mouth right now.”

The Ad Group’s current clientele also includes Keesler Federal Credit Union, Hancock County Tourism, Biloxi West Beach, West Bellevue, Gulf Coast Medical Center and Cruisin’ The Coast, an annual car show held the first weekend of October, which draws thousands of visitors to the Gulf Coast. Since its inception in 1995, Cruisin’ The Coast has grown from a showing of 200 vintage automobiles to more than 3,000.

“It’s been wonderful to see how much interest has been received from vintage car owners and the general public. And it’s been a fun project to work on every year,” said Stephens, who owns a 1966 Mustang.

Even though Hasty, 44, a single mother of two, and Stephens, 32, a newlywed, may not appear to have much in common, Hasty said they rely on and complement each other in business.

“Robin is in charge of the art department, takes care of all equipment and makes sure it works correctly,” she said. “I handle a lot of the account services, taxes and other details.”

From the beginning, Hasty and Stephens made several key decisions: to create all work locally and to have a comfortable and creative workplace, Hasty said.

“We don’t have marble floors,” she said, with a laugh. “Each space is individual because we believe everyone should have his or her own style. If a setting is more comfortable, the work seems to flow easier – for all of us.”

The strategy has worked well. In the last several years, The Ad Group has racked up a bevy of industry awards, including the Mississippi Gulf Coast Advertising Federation’s Silver Medal Award in 1997, and the Best of Radio, Best of Print and Best of Show (for Keesler Federal Credit Union’s annual report) in 1999.

The Ad Group has a staff of 12, with plans to add another half dozen employees by the end of the year to assist with the firm’s growing Web design business and to facilitate expansion plans, said Hasty. “We can’t say when or where, but we plan to open another office soon,” she said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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