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October 2011
Making Their Mark
By Zenda Douglas

     “No, we’re not a tattoo parlor,” explains the receptionist. The phone lights up with dozens of calls each day, from would-be customers looking to schedule an appointment for body art. The name raises eyebrows, garners questions, and has even scared some more conservative clients away. But it sticks—and it clearly describes what the company does: Tattoo helps their clients leave a mark.

     Tattoo Projects, founded in 2006 by Buffy McCoy Kelly and Rudy Banny, is a creative marketing studio located in the historic Cotton Mill building in uptown Charlotte. Tattoo is home to international award-winning talent, including creative directors, art directors, writers, and production staff.

     With only twelve full-time employees, the agency is one of the smallest ever to be named one of Advertising Age’s 2011 Small Ad Agencies of the Year. Hundreds of agencies were considered for the award—from the U.S., Canada and 20 other countries as well. Ultimately, 19 awards were given out.

     “We work so hard to create awesome results that get our clients noticed,” says Tattoo Executive Creative Director Rudy Banny. “It’s really cool to be rewarded for it. And to beat out agencies in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, and bring this award home to Charlotte? That’s the cherry on top.”


Getting Results

     Tattoo is known for creating daring work that gets noticed—and leaves indelible impressions, hence the name. The group’s portfolio consists of creative marketing for clients who include Hoover vacuums/ TTI Floorcare International, Sheetz Convenience Stores, UNC Charlotte,, Dale Earnhardt Foundation, John Deere, Switzerland’s Valais Water and Frey Chocolate, to name a few.

     “We’re very aggressive,” says Executive Creative Director Buffy McCoy Kelly. “We push our clients to step outside their comfort zones, and take risks. If they’re nervous, we know we’re doing our job right.”

     With this unapologetic approach, Tattoo provides a complete range of marketing and creative services to their clients. From national television campaigns to print, billboards, radio, interactive, social media, non-traditional approaches, and even trade shows, Tattoo is anything but an ordinary ad agency.

     For, a Seattle-based organization committed to helping families to stay organized, or “keep their ducks in a row,” Tattoo created and managed a national-scale multi-media event to bring Cozi’s whimsical and fun style to life by doing just that. They set a Guinness Record for the world’s longest row of ducks—precisely 17, 782 rubber duckies lined up in a mile-long row, in Seattle’s Magnuson Park.

      “Clients come to us when for the most creative solutions for their marketing needs,” says Banny. “But getting results for our clients is first.”

     And getting results is apparently something Tattoo does well. In only one weekend, the Cozi campaign generated the highest amount of search traffic in’s histoy, a 168 percent increase in sign-ups, and 392 million media impressions—including a segment on NBC’s Today Show.

     For international vacuum brand Hoover, Tattoo creates dozens of unique creative elements every day. Earlier this year, they unveiled a 2-story vacuum canister, complete with a spiral staircase, for the International Housewares Show. To promote the Hoover Floormate, they conducted an open casting call, seeking women who would let them come to their homes to put everyday cleaning methods to the test.

     Called “The Hoover Floormate Challenge,” the campaign not only proved the effectiveness of the Hoover equipment, but also resulted in increased sales from approximately 10,000 units per week, to nearly 40,000 units per week during the campaign airtime.


Engaging the Client’s Business

     At Tattoo, teams work in a highly collaborative environment and have fun doing it. “It’s our job to put ourselves in the shoes of many different kinds of consumers,” says Banny. And they do their homework, by putting themselves directly in the position of the consumer and fully engaging in their client’s business."

     “We’ve sent creative teams to work the sandwich line to learn firsthand about our client, Sheetz convenience stores,” Kelly explains. “We’ve put on hair nets and gone to the apple sauce plant.”

     “We have a great time with it all,” Banny says. He is hoping for a motorcycle account, so he can do the homework on the product himself. “That certainly would not stink,” he grins.

     While Tattoo Projects continues to work on national and international accounts, two of their local campaigns especially touched Charlottean hearts. At the 2010 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr., a team of models handed out engraved invitations to the press and NASCAR constituents for a private reception hosted by Ms. Teresa Earnhardt. They wore black cocktail dresses, Dale’s trademark sunglasses, and Dale-style moustaches. The media response was huge and the ensuing “There’s a little bit of Dale in all of us” campaign garnered much attention for the Dale Earnhardt Foundation.

     The agency had been in Charlotte about a year when they learned of UNC Charlotte’s request for proposals for a new brand campaign. Banny and Kelly believed that their more brash and edgy style was just what the university needed. The two caught the attention of the school’s new brand leader, Richard McDevitt, who was not satisfied with the status quo and wanted to shake things up. He responded to the agency’s energy along with its experience working with higher education and handling pieces of business that come with state stipulations.

     “He stuck his neck out for us,” says Kelly.

     Working with McDevitt, Tattoo created the “Stake Your Claim” campaign for UNC Charlotte. The work literally staked a claim for the university with 18 foot by 10 foot pickaxe sculptures installed in downtown Charlotte, at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and on campus. Thirty-second TV was created to look like breaking news stories of a giant miner walking through the city; it was seeded through social networking sites and blogs. Print and billboards rounded out the campaign.


Partners in Kind

     Banny and Kelly met when Banny was searching for outstanding talent for his agency in Harrisburg, Pa., where he was an owner and executive creative director.

     Banny had come up through the ranks of the Chicago advertising scene, working with international brands such as Culligan Water, Roto-Rooter Plumbing, Head Tennis, and Wilson Golf, with Grant Jacoby, Inc. He became an agency owner in Harrisburg in 1998.

     “It was hard to recruit to Harrisburg, but I’d discovered Buffy McCoy Kelly and pursued her until she finally agreed to join the agency in 2000,” says Banny. “She turned me down several times.”

     Kelly had built her career thus far via agencies in Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Vermont, working on brands like Converse Shoes and Fidelity Investments. She was named one of the Top 25 Advertising Working Mothers in the Nation by Working Mother Magazine and Advertising Women of New York.

     In a short seven-year span, the team helped the Harrisburg agency grow from $7 million to $58 million in business.

     “We learned a lot about pushing the envelope during that time,” says Banny. Looking at how the industry was run, he and Kelly felt that they could build a better business from a creative standpoint. “So, we put that model on paper, developed our business strategy and it became Tattoo.”

     Banny and Kelly were equally deliberate in choosing Charlotte as the headquarters for their business.

     “In order to move our families, we needed to know that the quality of life was going to be awesome, that it was an excellent place to raise kids, that there was a friendly business and economic development environment, and that it was close to a major airport,” says Banny.

     Based upon research and rankings, they had looked at Las Vegas and Atlanta, but Charlotte caught their attention. Kelly and Banny’s wife Laura came to visit, stayed at the Morehead Inn, rented a red convertible, and put Charlotte to the test.

     “We returned home and said, ‘We’re moving there!’ and we’ve loved it ever since!” says Banny. He and his wife have four children ranging in age from 16 to 10. Kelly and her husband have a son and daughter, ages 12 and 8.


A Place in the Sun

     “I want that space.” That’s what Kelly had to say when the Tattoo Projects group passed by the gutted space on West 5th Street. Six months later the agency was installed in the 4,300-square-foot uptown warehouse.

     “It was serendipity,” says Kelly. The office is all at once welcoming, colorful, individualistic, inspiring and, strategically functional. Social media feeds stream on flat screens, a movie projects onto the wall, there’s even a motorcycle sitting in the entryway . It fairly bursts with energy.

     “We like being in the midst of the business community,” says Banny. “We do national-scale work and want to be near those clients.” The agency brings numerous clients to the city and utilizes the arts, entertainment and dining opportunities here.

     “We’re extremely excited to be able to grow our business here,” says Kelly, adding, “We’re a part of Charlotte, now.”

     Tattoo Projects has encountered some negative responses to its name, particularly in the hometown region of Charlotte, which is generally more conservative than the larger advertising communities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

     “The ultimate test is what we bring to the table. We make our clients look like rock stars,” says Banny. “Imagine what Google went through when they started out,” muses Kelly. “The name also says a lot about the type of clients that want to do business with us; they are really ready to make a mark with their work.”

     The partners, who have a strong presence in the large advertising markets—they brought a following of clients from former agencies—admit that they are not very well known in Charlotte—yet.

     “We would like to change that,” says Banny. “We’re networking and extending our hand into the community every chance we get.”

     Charlotte ranks sixth in headquarters to Fortune 500 companies,” points out Kelly. “Those are the kinds of companies that are taking their business to the larger metropolitan areas. We need them to know that the talent is here.”

     Meanwhile, as Charlotte and Tattoo Projects become better acquainted, the agency is growing at a fast pace. Its talent, energy and wit pulled in $4.5 million in 2010; an astonishing 184.5 percent growth over 2009.

     “We don’t do billable hours,” says Kelly. The commodity we deal in isn’t time—it’s problem-solving ideas.” The agency works on a project basis and bills a flat-rate fee. This approach carries economic benefits to both the agency and the client.

     Tattoo Projects is just getting started. “We’re always looking for new projects, the brightest talent, more banking clients, and would love to work with NASCAR, Bank of America, or Lance—and we want to do lasting good in the community,” says Kelly. Sleeves up, Charlotte. A tattoo—or several—is in your future.


Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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