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The presentation was flashy.

As part of his company's winning bid for a $14 million state tourism contract, W Communications President Mark Hurst sprinkled a handful of cubic zirconia and a large uncut diamond borrowed from O.C. Tanner onto a yard of black velvet.

Utah was the diamond, according to the pitch - a rough stone Hurst promised to cut into a brighter sparkler.

"Fifty states all think they are a diamond," Hurst says. "Our ideas have to stand out."

The gimmick apparently worked. W - an upstart Salt Lake City firm with limited credentials but powerful connections in the advertising industry and within the governor's office - was awarded the biggest-ever contract to promote Utah tourism.

Some in the ad industry wonder whether the selection committee was blinded by the semiprecious stones. As a result of W's upset, they say, Utah's taxpayer-funded tourism dollars will flow to out-of-state firms with limited ties to the Beehive State.

While Hurst has been traveling the state, meeting with residents from Springdale to Logan to forge a Utah "brand" in time for an international travel expo in London this month, competing firms have questioned the company's qualifications and the bid process that set W on its road trip.

W is a small and young firm started by Jeff Wright, a one-time Republican candidate for Congress and party donor. The firm had little tourism experience and relied heavily on the credentials of a famous New York City ad executive, Gordon Bowen, who joined "Team W" for the state ad campaign.

In the small pond of Utah advertising and public relations businesses, ad executive Tracy Crowell says, the level of discontent among W's competitors is more than the usual professional jealousy. "Everybody was surprised W got it," says Crowell, whose company did not bid for the state contract. "Something had to happen for them to make the short list. Seems like they know somebody."

But state tourism officials dismiss the chatter as so much sour grapes. "The ones who are not happy with the outcome are trying to discredit the process," says Leigh von der Esch, director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

A new direction: Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. signaled a shake-up in Utah tourism promotion soon after taking office, when he announced he would move tourism functions under his oversight. He shifted von der Esch from her spot at the Utah Film Commission and appointed his inauguration planner, Mike Deaver, to be her deputy. Huntsman charged them with creating advertising that was "hip, young and different," Deaver says.

Meantime, lawmakers boosted state tourism funding from $900,000 a year to $14 million to be split over two years promoting Utah to the rest of the world.

In May, Riester-Robb, the firm that held the state tourism contract for decades and created the Utah! logo, learned their contract would not be renewed. A request for proposals was issued and the selection committee was assembled.

W rose through the ranks of 20 firms last summer to make a list of eight finalists in July. Each firm was required to answer questions that probed their creativity, Internet savvy and professional accomplishments. The finalists submitted marketing strategies for both winter and warm-weather tourism campaigns. And all eight created mock ads for Utah fly-fishing.

On July 22, each firm presented their ideas orally to the six-member selection committee - including von der Esch, Barbara Gann from the Salt Lake City International Airport and Deer Valley Lodging President Kim McClelland. Deaver, whose brother worked for one of the finalists, and Huntsman economic development adviser Chris Roybal, sat in on the presentations. Four days later, W was named winner of the two-year contract, narrowly edging out the other top firms.

Since then, the other seven finalists, including Riester-Robb, have been trying to figure out what happened.

"We figured they wanted somebody else when they didn't continue our contract," says Mickey Gallivan, managing partner at Riester-Robb. "It just hurts us from a pride standpoint. It would have been nice to keep it."

An inside track? Others wonder whether W's path was greased - either through its ties to the governor's office or to New York City-based Bowen, the creator of the "Light the Fire Within" slogan for the 2002 Winter Games, among others.

In addition to Bowen's talent and impressive résumé, Team W's political connections also are far-ranging. Hurst was former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn's press secretary. Garn is a political mentor to Huntsman, chaired the new governor's transition team and is a board member of Huntsman's Utah Policy Partnership, a nonprofit think tank. W also has worked with Huntsman fundraisers Max Farbman and Greg Hopkins, who raise money for everything from the governor's inauguration to his political action committee to his think tank. Wright donated $2,000 to Huntsman during the 2004 campaign. Finally, W volunteered its resources to promote first lady Mary Kaye Huntsman's "Power in You" teen self-esteem campaign this summer.

While he doesn't dispute those connections and says he doesn't remember when his firm started developing billboards for the first lady's campaign, Hurst insists that the most important asset his firm has is its contract with Bowen.

"Gordon's experience with the Olympics made him a cut above anybody else who could go for the contract," Hurst says. He calls W a "dream team" that can "make Utah something bigger and better and shinier."

The Salt Lake Tribune requested each of the finalists' bid documents and their rankings through a public records request. After initially refusing access to all but W's bid, state procurement officials informally agreed to release the documents after getting permission from the advertising firms.

The Bowen factor: While several of the finalists touted prominent national or international campaigns with indirect connections to their Salt Lake City offices, W's bid documents almost exclusively used Bowen's American Express, Reebok and Chase credit card ads to bolster its "branding" experience. Bowen flew to Salt Lake City to participate in the pitch.

And while W submitted scant evidence of experience promoting tourism - a few Sun Valley, Idaho, ads were included among Bowen's creative work - von der Esch said the combined branding experience of Hurst and Bowen helped the firm edge out its competitors.

"You look for who can differentiate your brand," she says. "It's not about giving more money and increasing the frequency of your broadcasts."

Selection committee member McClelland, of Deer Valley, says W was "passionate. It was clear W was the right firm."

Others wonder whether W simply slipped into the contract on Bowen's coattails.

Richter7 President Dave Newbold asked to meet with selection committee members to determine how his firm was passed by. "It all came down to Gordon Bowen," Newbold says. "He's articulate, a salesman. He enthralled the group."

Hurst brushes off questions about his firm's capability. "Utah is a very tough ad market. There's not a lot of business. We're all hungry for any piece," he said. "So when something like this comes along, everybody goes for it. Losing is a big blow and winning it is a huge honor."

W executives and state tourism officials started touring the state this fall in search of that elusive Utah brand.

"It's not about what you see when you come here. It's not about what you do when you come here," Hurst says. "It's about how you feel when you come here."

And, in a swipe at an ill-fated former state slogan, he adds, ''It's not going to be a 'Pretty, Great State.' ''

Selling Utah to the world: The Utah brand will be hinted at during the World Travel Market in London from Nov. 12-17. The state is sponsoring a table at a dinner for the British Travel Writers Guild and a luncheon for "Captains of Industry." The governor will deliver a taped message on the main stage.

"We're doing some things we've never done before in higher ways," says Deaver.

Salt Lake City ad executives are waiting to see what W - and Bowen - come up with. The ultimate irony, they say, is that many of Utah's tourism dollars will flow out of state to pay Bowen's firm, a Manhattan public-relations firm and a Los Angeles firm in charge of placing the state's ads. Of its $7.25 million budget (some of the state appropriation is dedicated to other tourism programs), W set aside $800,000 for public relations, $4 million for media buys and $1.25 million to cover production costs, although von der Esch says the budget has yet to be approved by a new state tourism board.

"Too much of Utah state business is going out of state," says Tom Love. Love Communications bid for the project and came in seventh. "We live here, work here, employ here. There are eight very qualified firms that were in that room that all represented homegrown talent and ability and they picked the one that farms it out the most."

In the end the only thing that probably will silence skeptics is the ad campaign W develops to promote Utah.

1 W Communications

What they've done: Salt Lake City office has created "label" billboards for the first lady's "Power in You" campaign, ads condensing the classics for Jiffy Lube and direct flights to Sun Valley, Idaho.

National ads you might have seen: Executive Creative Director Gordon Bowen developed American Express' "Membership has its privileges" campaign.

Fly-fishing slogan for mock ads: "Find a Rhythm All Your Own."

2 R&R Partners

What they've done: Romantic ads for Utah Opera, ski bus ads for Utah Transit Authority, Intermountain Health Care's "true stories" campaign and "It's the Snow" ads for Park City Mountain Resort.

National ads you might have seen: R & R's Las Vegas office developed the "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign.

Fly-fishing slogan: "Utah. Let your spirit wander."

3 Richter7

What they've done: Workers Compensation Fund billboards, Hogle Zoo animal "flip book" billboards, Polynesian Cultural Center campaign and Brigham Young University football team ads.

National ads you might have seen: Jackson Hole "Old West" ads.

Fly-fishing theme: "Out here, you'll forget everything." Attached to possible apology cards.