Dann Ilicic Wow Branding

You probably haven't heard of Wow Branding. Most of Dann Ilicic's would-be clients haven't, either. His tiny seven-year-old branding and marketing company has seven people and less than $1 million in revenue, and it has to compete with giant ad agencies and consultancies for clients. But, judging from the reactions of his clients, his presentations seem to be connecting: "We were so blown away by the whole thing," says one. "I don't think it could be better," says another. "Dann unquestionably knocked it out of the park compared with the other firms, and they were really high-end firms with spectacular portfolios," says a third.

To earn such kudos, Ilicic follows a simple approach: Razzle-dazzle 'em. In fact, he is thinking of adding seat belts to his boardroom chairs and requiring clients to strap in before they watch his presentations. "We can't bore anybody into signing a check, so we like to make it engaging," he says.

Ilicic starts by making something as elementary as an RFP response interesting. He gives the clients what they ask for, but he also has them fill out a Wow questionnaire that asks who Wow's up against for the job and what the potential client's biggest frustration is. That helps Wow, which is based in Vancouver, hit the right notes. "If my proposal addresses your frustration directly, it's like, These people understand me," Ilicic says. Then Ilicic dresses up the RFP response itself. For an agricultural company, Ilicic stamped green thumbprints throughout the proposal; for a vitamin company, he bought vitamin containers and replaced the labels with a message about Wow. "The last thing we want to do is be gimmicky," says Perry Chua, creative director at Wow, "but we do want to be memorable."

Ilicic and his team spend about 50 hours preparing a sales pitch. While they don't present brand concepts--it's too early, they don't know enough, and they don't want the clients objecting to small stuff--they do like to impress clients with the depth of their research. They'll call low-level employees, past customers, and especially companies that have chosen not to do business with the client, Ilicic says, "to find out information they wouldn't know about themselves." The effect is impressive, clients report. Whereas his competitors just called the marketing coordinator that sent out the RFP, says Steve Straus, president of Glumac, an engineering firm in Portland, Oregon, Ilicic called staffers at various offices and even clients. "He just blew us away," says Straus. "It was a brilliant move on his part because he wasn't asking us what our imagery should be"--he was learning what the image in the market already was.

At presentations, Ilicic tries to talk about Wow as little as possible. Instead, he records clients talking about Wow and what it did for them and then plays those recordings. And of course he tries to make things fun. The Wow team might bring Red Bull or popcorn to a presentation, or it might reveal the suggested name for a new company on a cake.

Most important, Ilicic tries to surprise prospects. And he remembers that companies tend to be sensitive about their images. "Imagine if someone was going to tell you who and what you were," he says. To get the clients out of that defensive mode, he once walked into a meeting with Advance Group Conference Management and said his firm had managed to obtain a branding project for the company's biggest competitor. I'll show you what we've learned, he said, and this will all be public in a couple of weeks, but first you have to sign an NDA. He then launched a multimedia presentation that showed the competitor's branding overhaul. Rose Ironside, the managing director and co-owner of Advance, remembers thinking, "Dammit, why didn't we think of that."

After the presentation, Ilicic did the big reveal: Wow hadn't really obtained a makeover for the competitor; it had created it for Advance. He had moved Ironside and her group away from defensiveness and into jealousy. "What a smart technique," Ironside says. "It gave us a whole new perspective."

Stephanie Clifford is a senior writer.