September 27, 2020

Ad Campaign Selling State to Businesses Is Criticized

Much of the money spent has been used to buy television ads, half of which are being broadcast outside New York, celebrating the state’s economic success stories as part of an effort to lure and keep business here.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration, which began the campaign, says the ads are a valuable tool for recruiting businesses, but critics say they are a backdoor way of elevating the governor’s stature, even though they do not mention his name and he is prohibited from appearing in them.

“We are doing everything we can to level the playing field to bring businesses and jobs to the state of New York, and will continue to double down on those efforts as long as this governor is in office,” Melissa DeRosa, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cuomo, said.

A portion of the campaign is being financed with money from public authorities, which have missions that include protecting the environment and financing public building projects, drawing some criticism. Additionally, a coming phase of the campaign will use $40 million from the federal government to promote businesses and tourism in the areas struck by Hurricane Sandy.

When the campaign began last June, a top state official, Howard Glaser, noted that New York was competing with other states to attract and keep businesses.

“Connecticut is spending $27 million promoting its state, Michigan $25 million, New Jersey ran a campaign to recruit businesses featuring its governor,” Mr. Glaser, the state operations director, said. “California spent $50 million on a campaign to promote its state. We have to compete.”

Mr. Cuomo’s office says that much of the money has not yet been spent — it says it spent $24 million on ad buys for the campaign last year, and another $12 million so far this year, and it says the scale of the campaign is similar to that in other states. A state filing last December said that by then, most of the initial $50 million allotment for the campaign had “been either spent or committed.”

Critics of the “Open for Business” campaign, which the Legislature approved, have proliferated as the commercials receive heavy airtime on networks like CNN, CNBC and NBC. Some have questioned whether the campaign is a wise use of money, while others have questioned whether New York, with its high tax burden, is truly business-friendly.

Andrew Rudnick, the chief executive of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a trade group, said in an interview, “New York’s business climate still isn’t competitive enough, in any objective sense of the word, for an ad to overcome.” He added, “I don’t think it’ll make a measurable amount of difference.”

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who like Mr. Cuomo is a Democrat, said in an appearance on NY1 this week, “They’ve spent who knows how much money on TV ads that are fluff and a waste of taxpayer money.”

One of the forces behind the campaign has been Harvey Cohen, who served as the adman for the political campaigns of the governor’s father, former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, and who now works at the Empire State Development Corporation, the state’s economic development arm. Advertising giant BBDO was hired to produce the commercials.

In a presentation to Empire State Development’s board in 2011, Mr. Cohen described the campaign as confronting “a classic marketing problem.” He said consultants who helped businesses relocate had misconceptions about New York.

“Yes they knew high taxes, yes they knew regulations, yes they knew right to work, but interestingly, they would tell me that many companies don’t even know that upstate New York exists,” he said, adding, “They certainly don’t know the new attitude brought in by the new administration.”

An early commercial featured a voice-over by Robert De Niro and the Jay-Z song “Empire State of Mind.”

“Some said we lost our edge,” Mr. De Niro narrated. “Well today, there’s a new New York State, one that’s working to attract businesses and create jobs.”

Another ad highlighted small businesses, from an ice cream factory to a bicycle shop, while a third ad focused on the state’s emerging technology sector.

In a statement last year, Mr. Cuomo said, “By telling the stories of businesses that are already succeeding in our state, we can attract even more economic opportunity and jobs.”

But others have raised concerns that the governor and lawmakers are draining money from ostensibly independent public authorities for purposes running counter to their missions, in a practice that is controversial but common in Albany. The state regularly takes what it describes as excess funds from public authorities, to finance state programs.

A state official said the early stages of the ad campaign were partly financed by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which runs programs intended to reduce energy consumption and improve the environment, and the Dormitory Authority of New York, which supports universities and nonprofit institutions.

Last December, the Cuomo administration added another $50 million. The money came from the State Power Authority, which was created to generate and provide cheap electricity to lower bills for residents and business. In public filings, officials with the authority described the advertising campaign as part of a broader effort by it to promote economic development.

Richard Brodsky, a Democrat and former assemblyman from Westchester County, said, “These authorities should be lowering electric rates, building dormitories and otherwise doing what they were created to do, rather than being raided” to pay for the ads.

Last month, the state expanded the “Open for Business” campaign, using $40 million from the federal aid package intended to help New Yorkers recover from Hurricane Sandy, records show. A new series of ads will, according to a state document, “promote seasonal business in areas” affected by the storm and a program focused on helping small businesses rebuild. New Jersey plans to spend $25 million of its federal funds on a campaign to promote the Jersey Shore and other storm-damaged areas.

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Start: How Small Businesses Use Fiverr, TaskRabbit and Other Services


The adventure of new ventures.

In an article The Times has just published, I profile four young ventures vying to help shorten to-do lists for small-business owners this holiday season. Please chime in at the bottom of this post with your own experiences offloading tasks to services that promise to lighten your load. To get things rolling, I’ve reached out to a few small businesses that use the companies featured in the article. Here are their tales:

The Gold-Plated Vacuum Cleaner

If your business wanted to sell a $1 million gold-plated vacuum cleaner – or at least get people talking about it – what would you do? Commission a two-minute rap, of course.

That, in any case, is what GoVacuum did. In June, the company began a golden-vacuum campaign devised by Justin Haver, its vice president of sales and marketing. Mr. Haver’s boss agreed to let him try the weird stunt if he could keep it cheap.

So Mr. Haver turned to Fiverr, an online market for small services. There he found a rapper-for-hire to praise his deluxe dust-buster. For $5, Haver ended up with beats and rhyming lyrics that included, “It’s 24-karat. Man, I wanna marry it! Lifetime warranty: you’ll never have to bury it.”

For the same $5 rate, other individual Fiverr members created a bouncy pop song, a press release, a blurb for the GoVacuum Web site and a computer-adjusted image of a golden vacuum. (Haver used all these elements but the last, preferring a picture created by an in-house designer.)

The fabled vacuum earned international headlines and televised coverage on the Fox Business Network’s “Money with Melissa Francis” and “Live From the Couch” on WLNY, a CBS New York affiliate. Before he could meet the cameras, however, Mr. Haver had to bring his fictitious vacuum to life. That meant paying a visit to the gold-plater.

“At that point the story became so good, we had to do it,” Mr. Haver said. “It took several thousand dollars.”

But he hasn’t forgotten that the campaign started much cheaper, with a flurry of $5 tasks that added up to less than $100. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Fiverrs,” he said.

Updating Online Listings From a Single Dashboard

Four years ago, Ivan Mladenovic didn’t want customers randomly dropping in to visit his computer repair and consulting shop. Who can blame him? He was running it from his kitchen.

When the company, Preemo, began to grow, Mr. Mladenovic moved it to a corporate office space. This summer, he expanded into a retail storefront in South Miami, Fla., and having customers stop by became a priority. Suddenly, he needed to change his business’s address everywhere it appeared online.

“We’re listed in every directory we can be in because of the nature of our business,” Mr. Mladenovic said. “There are least 80 or 90 directory listings for our business. And it’s a huge science project to change them.”

So he turned to Yext, a company based in New York that gives users a single dashboard to update company listings across more than 50 directory sites including Yelp, CitySearch, MapQuest and Foursquare. (That list does not include Google+ Local; Yext has been a vocal critic of Google’s business listings service.)

Yext also lets business owners add promotional content, like special offers and photographs, to their listings, and it alerts owners when customers post new reviews. The full service costs $499, billed annually.

“I justify the cost because it takes me about 20 to 30 minutes to update one listing, so if I’m updating more than 40 at once it’s a significant time savings on my part,” Mr. Mladenovic said. He also uses Yext to post deals on iPhone repair and other services. He typically runs a new special every two months, hoping that fresh offers will maintain customer interest.

“Our business is obviously an as-needed service. Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I want to fix my computer today,’” he said, laughing. “I want us to be top-of-mind.”

An Intensely Manual Process

When tasks multiply, Matt Brezina calls in the rabbits.

Mr. Brezina is the co-founder of Sincerely, a start-up whose mobile apps let users create and mail photo postcards and other printed greetings. The company’s newest service, Sesame, dispatches themed gift boxes that consumers select and order through their smartphones. Sesame went live at the end of last month, just in time for prime gift-giving season.

“This is a new business for us,” Mr. Brezina said. “We had no idea how huge it would be.”

That’s where the rabbits came in. When the work became too much for the 16 full-time employees at his San Francisco office, Mr. Brezina reached out to TaskRabbit, an on-demand service for farming out quick jobs to individual freelancers, which the company calls rabbits. On some days, as many as three rabbits were dispatched to Sincerely, where they packed elaborately designed gifts sets whose contents ranged from puppy-training accessories to cocktail supplies and baby gear.

“Putting these gifts together is an intensely manual process,” Mr. Brezina said, requiring workers who bring attention and care. “We have some people we really like, and we hire them over and over.”

Have you tried any services like these? If so, what worked for you? What didn’t? Which tasks are easily delegated to others? Which ones lend credence to the old adage, “The only way to get a job done right is to do it yourself”?

You can follow Jessica Bruder on Twitter.

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