They are ubiquitous, it seems – at stores, street corners, rock concerts and even in the odd fountain, floating on little rubber dinghies.
They are called Splashers, but not just because they have been known to take a casual dip in the town fountain. They are the "brand representatives" of Splash Modelling Marketing Inc., a Canadian agency that has grown exponentially since it was started in 2006 by Pickering, Ont., entrepreneur Christena McDonald.
At a time when companies are trimming expenses and outsourcing marketing work, Splash has flowed onto the scene to take up the slack, finding new ways to pitch its clients' products. Its stable of attractive, often well-educated young people have a knack for morphing into the face of a company they are representing.
Ms. McDonald's customer-centred business has expanded rapidly, doubling in size every year, to the point that she has expanded into the United States, with offices in San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas. She has more than 25 staff at her head office in the Toronto suburb of Pickering. About 5,000 brand representatives ply her trade on the continent.
Splash is a one-stop marketing agency. It merchandises, arranges in-store demonstrations and creates settings for large promotions. It also wraps vehicles with peel-off stickers and stages wine tastings and mystery shops. It handles VIP fan experiences for rock acts such as Bon Jovi, Black Eyed Peas, Usher, Janet Jackson and Kid Rock. It makes T-shirts. It hands out newspapers, including a special evening edition of The Globe and Mail last November.
Not content to stand still, Ms. McDonald also looked for new, untapped markets, including airports. Splash signed an exclusive contract to stage sampling and demonstrations at all major airports in Canada, and some in the United States.
There, Splash has a captive audience; people have to check in 90 minutes or more before flights. The agency is encountering a different clientele than the one that shops in the local drug store: the business traveller. "The person who would never buy in a shop is now buying in a Watermark store," Ms. McDonald says of the chain of convenience shops within airports. Clients immediately saw a boost in their sales when Splash staged promotions.
Splash also arranges promotions during flights. It sold a program to bring 100,000 samples of All-Bran cereal to travellers in the air. It is also putting its brand ambassadors on flights, particularly in a campaign for Sony: Travellers can try out PlayStations before they get the airline meal (if there is one).
Ms. McDonald says Splash is more marketing than model. The agency is not just about hiring attractive people to hand out toothpaste samples to people on the street who may not want them, although Splash does do some promotions that require a pretty face.
Rather, the Splashers are often kinesiology or law students, perhaps working their way through university, some attracted to the marketing experience they gain. "They are really articulate, very professional, very engaging," Ms. McDonald says.
She trains them by asking them to role-play (the most effective way to train people, she says), teaching them what to say and do when a potential customer looks askance.
The Splasher is also targeted to the product: If the company is demonstrating the joys of PlayStation, the agency's reps had better be gamers. (PlayStation was her first customer.)
Ms. McDonald calls her reps the "bricks and mortar" of her company. Training is key. Splash flies in reps from across the country for quarterly meetings and three-day training sessions. The company has very little turnover, Ms. McDonald says.
Rather impishly, Splash also does guerrilla campaigns, going to places where they often don't have a permit to set up. Splash staged one such campaign for Axe, a brand of male grooming products. The whole idea was to engage male customers with female reps. Splash, appropriately enough, set itself up in fountains across Canada.
In the six-week campaign, Splash brought in dinghies and women dressed in shorts and bikinis who alternated between riding the waves and lounging in deck chairs. The reps handed out postcards that suggested people go online to enter a draw, in which 10 would win a weekend at a palatial cottage in the Muskoka region north of Toronto.
"Are you supposed to be here?" a policeman would ask.
"I had no idea," the rep would say. "Are you kidding?"
(Splash always tells its people to thank the police and promise to move as soon as they pack their gear, if asked.)
With all these activities going on, there's little time to rest for Ms. McDonald, who formed her own company to give herself "a kick in the butt to say there's more for me out there," she says. Now she represents more than 400 merchandisers and has 30 projects on the go.
"Gone are the days for mediocrity," she says.