Atlanta-based IMAGES USA (No. 12 on the BE ADVERTISING AGENCIES list with $41 million in billings) was tapped in January to handle advertising and marketing for Amtrak’s mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions, an assignment that could be worth up to $4 million over four years. However, it comes with a huge task: making Amtrak, the struggling national railroad with crippling financial woes, into a household name synonymous with convenient and comfortable travel. Accomplishing this task means targeting black and Hispanic families in the Southeast with the message that hitting the rails is a cheaper and better way to go than taking to the skies, doing the driving yourself, or hopping on the bus, according to Hank Koppelman, Amtrak’s Southeast director of marketing and sales.
Transportation analysts commended Amtrak for picking IMAGES to handle broader advertising responsibilities. IMAGES has been given a full marketing and communications account, which means they will handle creative, media planning and buying, and even some public relations duties for the Southeast region. But knowing how to reach black and Hispanic consumers could be the least of the agency’s worries on the account, says Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst who follows Amtrak for Forrester Research in San Francisco.
“A lot of Amtrak’s problems are not advertising-solvable issues,” Harteveldt says, pointing to Amtrak’s ever-present budget and infrastructure woes. Still, he adds, “Those issues need to be addressed with the public because they address the primary reasons why people travel.”
Amtrak lost $1.3 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2004; fiscal year 2005 numbers have yet to be reported. It spent $32 million on advertising nationwide that year.
IMAGES is not the first black-owned ad agency to get a big assignment from Amtrak; now-defunct Chisolm-Mingo Group Inc. once held a national account before it closed its doors for good after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2004.