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On the Cutting Edge: The All Terrain Story

Written by Sathya Vijayakumar

As we noted last month in our profile of Fruition Partners, the 2014 Inner City 100 was one of the most competitive lists in recent years, so much so that we recognized 55 additional firms as Honorable Mention recipients at the Inner City 100 Symposium & Awards event in October. The 2014 list showcased a variety of dynamic businesses ranging from B-Corps that pioneered mobile retail (and we mean giant RV mobile, not the smart phone variety) to a pizza place known as much for its unique entertainment as its iconic square pie. Even among this group of innovators, All Terrain, an experiential marketing firm out of Chicago, stands out for its unique business model and success serving the C-suites of some of America’s most iconic companies.

From Idea to Industry Leader

Perhaps All Terrain’s founding can best be described by Coco Chanel’s quote that, “Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.” Co-founders Sarah Eck-Thompson and Brook Jay had little previous experience with marketing and neither had a business degree. Further, their initial idea for All Terrain was based in part on their experience seeing brands come up with creative ways to get around the International Olympic Committee’s rules on marketing at the 1996 Olympics. And yet today, they run a marketing business that grew 329.4% over the last 5 years while more than tripling their staff and surpassing $10 million in revenue in 2013. All of this begs the question, how did they succeed in the hypercompetitive Chicago marketing scene even as established industry leaders struggled to meet the demanding needs of a post-Recession marketplace?

Experience the Difference

Describing the environment around their founding, Sarah Eck-Thompson said, “Nobody really knew what experiential marketing was, or what it would become, back then.” While others saw attempts to engage consumers at the Olympics as a clever kind of guerilla marketing – in effect, a 1-hit wonder – Jay and Eck-Thompson saw something potentially powerful and took the idea further than even many potential direct competitors. From its inception, All Terrain has been at the cutting edge of technology, combining custom experiences designed from data-driven consumer insights with an ever-evolving slate of digital options that go beyond the simple social media integration practiced by many of their competitors. Not only will they build a social presence related to a client’s goals, but they will also often incorporate digital options ranging from custom-built apps to deploying a national network of 2,000 brand ambassadors to participate in live-streamed product demos. The basic formula that seems to have propelled All Terrain forward over the last decade is combining the technological savvy and sophistication practiced by larger firms with the creativity and willingness to take risks of a startup. Reflecting their distinctive expertise, the firm’s client roster has ranged from disruptive upstarts like Neuro Drinks to blue-chippers like General Motors. One particular example that stands out is a recent All Terrain project with The Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas.

A Cosmopolitan Feel

As the company succinctly describes on their website, “Our approach is grounded in an understanding of a new breed of consumer that is empowered with technology and impervious to traditional marketing. All Terrain’s creative, data-driven approach enables us to design customized, episodic experiences that are relevant to consumers.” To serve a hotel client, a typical marketing and PR company might suggest a plan that relies on building out a social media presence, conventional ads in targeted publications, and perhaps a customer loyalty program. In contrast, on behalf of The Cosmopolitan, All Terrain negotiated an in-flight experiential media buy with United Airlines in which passengers on select flights to Las Vegas were given a “gift box” that included branded playing cards with special offers to the hotel. As this profile in Adweek reports, The Cosmopolitan enrolled more than 50,000 new loyalty members within the first year, dramatically surpassing the annual goal, and with a 5% redemption rate it is the highest performing out-of-home campaign The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas has done to date.. By creating a deeper, custom experience with potential consumers selected based on data analytics, All Terrain was able to help a client achieve its goals in a novel way. A second, year-long version of the Cosmopolitan project with United is in the works, and, if the past is any indication, this won’t be the last we hear of this innovative urban company.

If you enjoyed learning about All Terrain’s unique growth story, make sure to attend Paving a Path to Growth in 2015, a convening presented by Staples, ICIC, and World Business Chicago on Thursday, February 5, 2014, at Fruition Partners HQ in Chicago. Fruition Partners CEO and co-founder Marc Talluto and All Terrain COO and co-founder Sarah Eck-Thompson will be featured speakers in an interactive discussion about business growth with Melissa Harris of the Chicago Tribune. Register today to reserve your spot.


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