I’m not famous.  I never have been. I never will be. That’s okay.  I prefer it that way.  But I have been at the center of something that almost everyone in Nevada, and the country for that matter, knows about.  Something very famous, that can be summed up in five little words:

“What happens here, stays here.”

As far as I know, there is only one campaign created for a Nevada client, by a Nevada ad agency, residing on the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame. “What happens here, stays here.” is it.  It is the campaign that has been quoted on more television shows, used as a reference in more feature films and reconfigured to create more t-shirts than any other in the past 20 years.  And I was there the day it was born.

The story begins on a hot July day in Las Vegas (I know, every July day in Las Vegas is hot – but let’s move on, shall we?) in 2002.  At the time, I was the Executive Creative Director at R&R.  Our biggest, highest-profile client then was the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (they still are) and we were working on new campaign ideas for them with an eye toward rolling something out early in 2003.  As a destination, Las Vegas had regained its footing after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  New resorts were opening or under construction and interest in the city was growing at a nice pace.  We wanted to ride that wave with a campaign that captured the essence of Las Vegas’s brand promise – adult freedom – in a way that would engage viewers quickly and clearly and, more importantly, connect on an emotional level with our customers.

A tall order, but one we felt we could fill.  At this point, it’s important to point out that R&R and the LVCVA have worked together since the mid-70’s to market Las Vegas to the world.  Over that time, we have a developed a degree of mutual trust and respect that is rare in today’s world of fractious agency-client relationships.  As a result, there was no doubt at either R&R or the LVCVA that we would be able to create a campaign to meet all of our lofty goals.

That said, at the time, I don’t think any of us realized what we were about to unleash onto the advertising world.

But let’s get back to July of 2002.

We had been working on a number of concepts that seemed to hold some promise when two young writers – Jeff Candido and Jason Hoff – came into my office to announce that they had both come up with virtually the same idea independently of one another. An idea they felt was better than anything we had yet considered.  In essence, they wanted to base each ad on a single Las Vegas story.  Each story would portray a visitor or visitors in a quintessential Las Vegas situation.  Nothing groundbreaking there, except for one twist.  Jeff and Jason were proposing that in each spot, we leave out one or two important details and replace them with a full screen graphic saying simply, “What happens here, stays here.”

I have often been asked if I came up with the idea for the campaign.  I did not.  Credit for that goes to Jeff and Jason.  But I have said, and continue to say to this day, that the best decision I have ever made in my career was the choice I made that day not to kill that idea.  It’s important to realize that one of the most important jobs of an Executive Creative Director is to separate the wheat from the chaff.  To weed out the lesser ideas so the great ones can shine.  To kill campaigns, in other words. In the advertising world, for every concept we produce, there are hundreds that never see the light of day.  It is not a good profession for anyone who deals badly with rejection. But on that day, I was smart enough to look at Jeff and Jason and say something to the effect of, “You guys might be on to something here.  Let’s flesh it out, write some scripts and see where it takes us.”

More than ten years later, I look back with more than a little awe… at all the places it has taken us. The campaign is still running and still resonating with our customers.  In fact, over the decade of its existence, we have produced many other alternate campaigns for the LVCVA. Campaigns designed to promote our new dining, shopping and entertainment products.  Campaigns produced in the dark days of the Great Recession to remind people that Las Vegas was still open for business and give them permission to take a weekend off and visit us for some well-deserved fun.  Campaigns tasked with promoting our new website or motivating visits during the hot summer months.  All kinds of campaigns, all tested with consumers before production.  And in every one of those focus groups and concept-testing triads (another way we test creative ideas), one question would always come up: “These aren’t going to replace ‘What happens here, stays here.’ Are they?  We love that campaign.  We always look forward to the new ads.”

What could be more gratifying than to have your audience ask you for more? I don’t know if that’s unique for an ad campaign, but it’s certainly rare. And so today, “What happens here, stays here.” is just beginning its 11th year, with new concepts and new executions.  But in its heart, it retains the same emotional connection that Las Vegas’s visitors have always had with the destination.

The connection we first explored on that hot July day in 2002.