On Oscars night in 2012, Tom Hanks presented the first two Academy Awards while wearing an mysterious number 6 pinned to his lapel. The actor never referenced it, but entertainment media was abuzz with speculation.
Two months later, the story behind the accessory was revealed. The pin was part of a campaign to raise awareness for Got Your 6, an organization formed by NBCUniversal and Hollywood executives to help military veterans. The group, named after the jargon soldiers use to say they’re watching each others’ backs, works to reintegrate veterans returning from conflict zones into civilian life.
The campaign touched Hollywood’s heart and has helped raise millions of dollars for Got Your 6. Sales of pins, wristbands and other merchandise bearing the logo have raised more than $3 million for the organization. The impact was big, but the agency that created the organization’s brand identity, logo, website and celebrity-studded PSAs is a small, 70-person shop in Sacramento: MeringCarson.
The 31-year-old agency consistently punches above its weight, with a long-running, nationally-recognized California tourism campaign under its belt, as well as work for Disney and a Emmy Award-winning Super Bowl ad for the NFL. This year, they’re projected to break $75 million in billings. Both laid-back and tenacious, the agency has developed a reputation with clients for consistently delivering high-quality, effective work that goes beyond the expectations of the brief.
"Whatever work they do will be excellent," said Val Nicholas, vice president and creative director at NBC News, who enlisted the agency to create the "Got Your 6" campaign. "They just don’t know how to do it any other way."
MeringCarson began in 1985 as Mering & Associates, when 27-year-old Dave Mering lost his job after his employer Wade Advertising went under. He founded the agency as an affiliate of KCRA, a local television station, which became its first client. In 1993, Mering hired an unpaid intern, Greg Carson, who spun the position into a full-time job after graduation and is now an agency partner and the shop’s CCO.
"While all my friends were deciding if they're going to go to grad school, I was working 60-70 hours a week and loving it," said Carson, who aside from two years at JWT Atlanta has been with the agency his entire 23-year career.
Carson was the copywriter and the director of the "Got Your 6" spots and gave Hanks one of the six lapel pins initially made at launch. "We had access to backstage the day before the Academy Awards, and when we showed the script to the celebrities that were there, they loved it. They loved it not being about them," Carson said. The agency set up a green screen in a hotel room next door and shuttled celebrities through to film the spots.
When Hanks asked to keep his pin after his shoot was finished, Carson seized on the opportunity. "We only had six of them, and we had all these celebrities shooting, so I said, ‘Well, that depends. What are you going to do with it?’ He just looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘I'm going to wear it tomorrow.' "
That kind of gumption and hustle is necessary to flourish as a small agency with big clients, and MeringCarson pulls it off. "When my reputation is on the line, I’m going to turn to MeringCarson," NichoIas said. "I trust them with my career."
Client: Visit California
Year: 1998 – present
It’s not uncommon to meet MeringCarson employees with 10 or 15-year tenures. That longevity also encourages long-term client relationships. Dave Mering pitched Visit California in 1998 with a spec commercial that featured Nat King Cole’s "L-O-V-E." Nearly 20 years later, the partnership is still going strong, with an economic impact of nearly $10 billion.
The spots focus not on the land and attractions themselves, but on the people who live there, like William Shatner, Joe Montana, January Jones and Shaun White. "We never really market [the organization] Visit California -- it's California," Carson said. "It's not the San Diego Tourism Authority we are promoting -- it's San Diego."
In 2008, MeringCarson won a pitch with the NFL for a pro bono spot about funding for public school gym classes. That work led to fantasy football spots, one of which is still on the air eight years later. The partnership culminated with a 30-second Super Bowl XLIII spot that won an Emmy the following year.
Client: The Islands of Tahiti
The agency is best known for its tourism work, even outside the country. MeringCarson has worked with the nation of Fiji, and recently began a campaign for Tahiti. "Because of word-of-mouth, we have a lot of destination marketing organizations just walk through the door without an RFP or anything," Carson said. "That's the easiest knockdown for us, because not many people know how to do destination marketing. We feel like we have a secret sauce that leads to really good success."
But global destinations hold no long-term allure. The agency has about 20 employees in San Diego, but it purposefully eschews the local ad hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles. "It's a quality of life aspect that we have," Carson said. "We don't live by that crazy old attitude, if you don't come in on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday. We want people to enjoy their lives."
Nicholas at NBC said that’s part of MeringCarson’s sterling reputation. "For these guys to do what they do and have the client list that they have, and still be based in Sacramento says everything about who they are and what kind of work they turn out."