Business & Real Estate

Little-known Sacramento ad agency has national campaigns, powerhouse clients

MeringCarson Chief Creative Officer Greg Carson walks by the company mantra, “We Move People,” at the advertising firm’s midtown Sacramento office. The company marks 30 years in business this month.
MeringCarson Chief Creative Officer Greg Carson walks by the company mantra, “We Move People,” at the advertising firm’s midtown Sacramento office. The company marks 30 years in business this month. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Inside the restored Victorian building, a staff of more than 40 workers is creating advertising and marketing ideas likely to be seen by millions.

Many of this ad agency’s television and public service spots are packed with world-famous athletes and celebrities. Much of its televised work is instantly recognizable to even casual observers of popular culture.

This could be an agency in New York City or perhaps Beverly Hills.

Instead, you’ll find it at 17th and I streets in midtown Sacramento, where MeringCarson occupies some 12,000 square feet of space. The agency marked its 30th year in Sacramento this month, with 2015 billings projected at around $85 million. The firm expects to crack the $100 million threshold next year.

MeringCarson has a second office in San Diego and expects to add a dozen employees by year’s end companywide. About 50 of the 70 workers will be in Sacramento. Its list of past and present clients includes such heavyweights as Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, Pebble Beach Resorts, Visit California, the Sacramento Kings and Thunder Valley Casino Resort.

The agency is “a great economic driver for our region,” said Peter Tateishi, president and CEO of the Sacramento Metro Chamber.

Beyond economics, Tateishi said, the agency “has shown that we have a great talent base here in Sacramento. The fact that we have these types of companies doing these creative things reinforces everything we say about Sacramento.”

Though MeringCarson’s ad campaigns may be instantly recognizable, CEO and founder David Mering realizes that the firm’s name is just as likely to draw blanks in some quarters.

“It’s probably true that a lot of people in Sacramento don’t know about us, but that’s OK,” Mering said. “We operate more like a small agency, and I think our (clients) appreciate that.”

The company got its start 30 years ago, when the then-28-year-old Mering partnered with Jon Kelly and Kelly Broadcasting Co. to start Mering & Associates. Mering had been creative director with Sacramento’s oldest advertising agency, Wade Advertising, before it went bankrupt.

Back then, Mering had four employees, and competitors quickly lashed out, noting that Kelly owned and operated Sacramento’s Channel 3 (KCRA) and held a majority interest in River City Bank. Competitors cited a possible conflict of interest in a media company running an advertising agency, and they expressed concerns that Mering would get favorable treatment buying television time on Channel 3.

Mering said he intended to buy Kelly out when the business was up and running smoothly. That’s precisely what happened in 1991.

The agency has been on a growth path ever since. In 2000, Greg Carson returned after two years away. In 2006, the chief creative officer’s name was added to the agency’s shingle.

“This is the kind of agency people might expect to see in San Francisco or Los Angeles,” said Carson, who first joined the firm in 1993. “It has been fun doing that level of work right here in Sacramento. The creativity here is at a very high level.”

The agency’s services are divided into groups that include research, insights and brand strategy; media connections; creative “ideation/production”; and “Emcee Design,” a “sister company” formed in 2012 that is involved in branding, business systems, website design, retail and packaging.

On the second floor of the company headquarters, workers with various skill sets – editing, production and creative ideas to name just a few – work together in space filled by colorful artwork and posters, some of those visual tributes to MeringCarson success stories. Many of those stories are instantly recognizable to Sacramento-area residents, even if they might not know that they were developed by MeringCarson.

For example, MeringCarson launched the Thunder Valley rebranding campaign in 2010 as the Lincoln venue touted its $750 million transition from a casino-specific destination to a multifaceted resort, with a 300-room luxury hotel, a full-time entertainment venue, new restaurants, a new pool and spa. The result was an rise in market share, out-of-town visitors, hotel occupancy and Web traffic, which increased 400 percent.

This is the kind of agency people might expect to see in San Francisco or Los Angeles. It has been fun doing that level of work right here in Sacramento. The creativity here is at a very high level.

Greg Carson, chief creative officer, MeringCarson

MeringCarson was “key to helping rebrand Thunder Valley from what was perceived as simply a casino into a AAA Four-Diamond destination resort,” said Doug Elmets, Thunder Valley spokesman and head of Elmets Communications in Sacramento.

In 2013, the firm was hired to provide marketing services for the Sacramento Kings and subsequently developed the ubiquitous “Sacramento Proud” ad campaign, which became a byword during the 2014-15 season. The campaign not only touted the Kings but also thanked the community for supporting the team over 30 years.

Ben Gumpert, chief marketing officer for the Kings, said the agency “combines a unique understanding of what makes Sacramento special along with creative, innovative and data-driven insights.”

Other MeringCarson creations have been seen nationwide. That includes a long-running television spot depicting emotionally crushed fans whose National Football League teams had dismal regular seasons and did not make the playoffs, all accompanied by Canadian singer-songwriter Daniel Powter’s 2005 hit, “Bad Day.”

MeringCarson also developed “Got Your Six” videos and public service announcements. The Hollywood Military Forum’s program goal was to help military veterans successfully transfer to civilian life after their service. MeringCarson’s spots employed a crowd of Hollywood A-listers, including Tom Hanks, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Bradley Cooper and Michael Douglas.

Among all its clients, Visit California, the nonprofit group that helps develop the state’s tourism marketing programs, is MeringCarson’s biggest. Over 17 years – a veritable eternity in ad agency-client relationships – MeringCarson’s work for Visit California has evolved from gross billings of $2.5 million annually to between $60 million and $70 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Of the agency’s work on behalf of Visit California, most likely are familiar with MeringCarson’s tongue-in-cheek TV spots showing famous Californians snapping off double-meaning lines at well-known, picturesque Golden State locales.

Carson says the agency’s ideas come from all sources; there’s no template for either a bottom-up or a top-down flow of creativity.

“That’s one of the great things about working here,” Carson said. “Great ideas can come from anywhere.”

Mering adds: “It’s a business of ideas. A good idea is a good idea … no matter who comes up with it.”

Self-deprecating humor also is common at the midtown offices. Agency President Lori Bartle, a 20-year agency veteran of numerous campaigns, calls herself a “utility player” with multiple humble skills.

Mering says the agency is working on more high-profile work that will be seen by large segments of the public in the future, including work with the Sacramento Kings. Mering characterized the Kings staying in Sacramento, the building of the downtown arena and related development downtown “bigger than basketball. I think the excitement is glorious will continue to build, which is a good thing not just for us, but all of Sacramento.”

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