Get Out and Sell Using Circus Advance Man Tactics

Tie-ins and marketing partnerships can bring in the business. But you have to get on the phone and push it with a personal touch.
Get Out and Sell Using Circus Advance Man Tactics
Jamie MacVicar, a former Ringling advance man, is the author of The Advance Man: A Journey Into the World of the Circus. You can reach him at

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Amarketer recently wrote, “In the age of Facebook and Twitter, the winners will be those who know how to work the phone.” This may be a clue to answering the age-old small-business question: How do I maximize my marketing and advertising dollars, and how do I close the sale?

The advance men for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus have for years exercised an extraordinary talent. In addition to their media-buying expertise and the creative impact of their advertising, their genius lies in how much exposure they get for free. A Ringling promoter once said, “If I have a $30,000 budget, by the time I am through I’ll have $300,000 worth of exposure.” He did this in two ways:

1. By using three chips: cash, trade and promotion. The media and the circus have something that costs them nothing that they both want to get rid of. In the case of the circus, it’s unsold seats, and in the media’s case, it is unsold time or space.

An advance man’s approach to a local radio station would typically be: “I’ll give you $5,000 for 10 spots a day to run in drive time over two weeks. In addition, I will trade you 400 tickets for another 10 spots a day for two weeks. And I’d like to do a co-promotion where you give the tickets away over the air for another 10 spots a day the preceding two weeks.”

2. By using tie-ins. This approach didn’t cost the circus anything. A company such as Safeway, with a large advertising budget, would be pitched on a circus tie-in. The advance man might give the grocery chain 2,000 discount tickets, and Safeway would be given a special “Safeway Night at the Circus,” with their own honorary ringmaster and VIP seats. In turn, the circus would be announced in all of Safeway’s advertising and in-store promotions, including discount coupons, for a month.

It’s a win-win for everyone. With the coupons, Safeway attracts new customers. Families that might not be able to afford full-priced tickets receive a healthy discount. And the circus, only too happy to receive 70 percent of the ticket price for a weekday show, gets an unimaginable amount of free advertising and exposure.

Variations on these themes and a grab-bag of promotional ideas, such as trade-outs and tie-ins, would be repeated all over town for what amounted to a short-term market saturation. In compliance with accounting rules and some creative thinking, any business today can increase its advertising exposure through similar strategies.


Ringling’s advance men knew that nothing comes from nothing. Somebody has to act, and the most successful businesspeople, from P. T. Barnum to Steve Jobs, have realized that, in the end, somebody has to sell something to someone. In fact, probably 80 percent of the most productive and consequential time that marketing personnel spend will be in one-on-one personal sales.

Rarely will an email, a tweet or a brochure make a sale. But personal, congenial, professional contact often does. With the computer, a certain impersonalized distance has developed in the business world — a distance that could be mitigated by simply picking up the phone and making a sales call, the old-fashioned way.

But prospect calling isn’t easy. By nature, we all want to feel accepted, and rejection is a part of any sales effort. That same trepidation can lead to inactivity or wasted, unproductive time at the computer. So here is how you can make it easier:

  1. Find your rhythm; your highest positive energy of the day. For me it’s mornings. From 8 a.m. until noon I am fearless, but my confidence fades in the afternoon. So I make my sales calls in the mornings. No interruptions. I then schedule my presentations for the afternoons.
  2. Smile when you speak into the phone. It will show in your voice.
  3. Today’s selling is far more consultative. Your first call isn’t meant to sell anything. It’s to open a dialogue and get an appointment.
  4. Use referrals, no matter how obscure. The prospect is more likely to listen when you start with “So and so spoke highly of you and suggested I give you a call.”
  5. Sell like to like. People are more receptive when they hear that a company or someone they know has done a similar tie-in or promotion.
  6. And most important of all, focus almost solely on their needs, not yours, and more often than not you will close the sale.

Numerous win-win alliances can multiply your advertising dollars. But we can’t forget that all things start from actions — actions worthy of P. T. Barnum that emanate from a good salesperson.


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