If people didn't know what Stanley Fishman does for a living, they might think he had watched a few too many game shows. He's constantly talking about free prizes, and his tone reaches the frenzied pitch of TV announcers who hype Rice-a-Roni and other parting gifts.
"You hear key rings, key rings. But look at these. These just aren't key rings. These are wonderful European-type key rings," Fishman said sternly, pointing to some prizes. "Take mugs. People can buy mugs all over. I don't carry any mug except a cobalt blue and gold mug. It's very upscale. It's very elegant. It's not just a run-of-the-mill mug."
Fishman isn't another Vanna White, but he does share her interest in prizes. His privately held Calabasas company, Marketing Innovations International, sells cameras, key rings, pen and pencil sets, coffee mugs and more than 300 other gifts that companies emblazon with their logos and use as promotional items. These gifts are known in the trade as advertising specialties.
The industry dates to 1886, when a newspaper publisher in Coshocton, Ohio, printed up book bags with merchants' names emblazoned on the side.
"He was so successful he got out of the newspaper business," said Rick Ebel, a spokesman for Specialty Advertising Assn. in Irving, Tex. In 1912, Cracker Jack started hiding prizes inside its boxes, and the idea began to catch on.
Ebel said advertising specialties are a $3-billion-a-year industry, with about 7,000 companies in the United States making 15,000 products. Many of the items are less than memorable, but Fishman plies the highbrow end of the market.
His 40 clients include the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, Giorgio of Beverly Hills and Perry Ellis cosmetics.
MII succeeds, Fishman said, because he sees to it that every giveaway has a rich image, right down to the gift box. "Presentation is very important. It gives a high-perceived value," he said. "The Trump ice scraper comes in a black lacquer box. It looks like $10, $12, $15." MII's corporate clients expect a high-gloss finish. "We don't put the Trump name on junk," said Timothy Rose, marketing director at Trump Plaza.
Harrah's Marina Hotel Casino in Atlantic City ordered more than 50,000 brass key chains in the shape of fortune cookies and gave them to passers-by. Trump Plaza gives its ice scrapers to customers on cold Atlantic City days.
Perry Ellis gave away an MII travel mirror with the purchase of cologne, while Aris Isotoner gave its customers a marble picture frame with a purchase of its gloves.
The idea is to bestow a little gift to keep customers coming back. "If one person gives, the other person is supposed to reciprocate. That's the logic behind this," said Louis Bucklin, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of marketing who has studied ad specialties.
MII has 26 employees and offices in Atlantic City, Hong Kong, Italy and Taiwan. Fishman, 55, the firm's chairman and chief executive, said that, for the year ended Sept. 30, the company had $10.5 million in sales, up from $7.4 million a year earlier. As for profit, his son, Keith, 32, company president, said only that MII's net income is in six figures. But Stanley Fishman appears to be profiting nicely--he owns a Mercedes, a Jaguar, a $430,000 Woodland Hills home and a Santa Barbara beach house.
Stanley and Keith Fishman and another executive make up the company's creative department. MII doesn't need a roomful of designers and artists because many of its products are similar to gadgets and trinkets available in department stores and boutiques.
"We interpret things," Stanley Fishman said with a smile. "If you can't be first, be a fast second. If you see something great, hop on."
Take the Trump Plaza dashboard visor. "A leading sporting goods store had this for $12," said Fishman. "I bought one. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I interpreted it from that store." He sold 100,000 interpretations to Trump at under $2 a visor. Fishman says he does not interpret patented products.
MII has succeeded in making good-looking but inexpensive knockoffs because Fishman buys most of the products from manufacturers in Taiwan, where an average worker earns about $2.35 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. But, in the past year, the Taiwan dollar has climbed 18% in value against the U.S. dollar, and some economists think it could go even higher.
The weakening U.S. dollar threatens to stunt the growth MII has enjoyed in the past two years. Fishman is sufficiently concerned that he opened a Hong Kong office three weeks ago in case Taiwanese workers become too expensive.
Thirty years ago, Fishman didn't care about business. He was just another aspiring actor waiting to be discovered. While he waited, he worked as a shoe salesman in Los Angeles. Acting never panned out, but sales did, and Fishman rose through the retail ranks to executive positions at Macy's, Gimbel Bros. and Dayton Hudson.