Rob Malowney of Aarrow Advertising talks about the business of sign-spinning. Photo: Sam Hodgson
Saturday, Feb. 16, 2008 | Launched by some friends in Ocean Beach in 2002, Aarrow Advertising — a company specializing in spinning signs and hiring the spinners who spin them — has exploded into markets around the country.
The company’s 700 part-time employees and 30 full-time managers all spin themselves, and compete via clips on YouTube and national competitions to have the best tricks. Rob Malowney, Aarrow’s director of West Coast operations, just returned to San Diego, his hometown, from helping spread the operations to Sacramento. The company has branches in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Malowney sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about why they’re shifting their focus (the real estate downtown), the kind of person that spins (hyperactive), and what happens when you don’t keep your eye on the sign (spinjury).
I did a little bit of research and found out that you’re the No. 2-ranked spinner in Sacramento.
I was. Everybody in the company spins, from the accounting team, which I’m a part of now, all the way up to the CEO, who’s Max (Durovic). So, you know, no one’s too good to spin. Basically, you know, what we try to do as management is set a good example for everyone else. So the best spinners are usually the management.
So, as a manager, do you still go out and take gigs spinning?
Yeah, we’re actually trying to set a policy right now where every manager goes out there with the “Your Ad Here” sign, which is basically just our ad saying, Call us, hire us — for a certain number of hours per week. But, like I said, everyone in the company spins and will continue to spin as long as we operate.
So it’s not something where you just, sort of, talk about the glory days about when they used to spin and how much easier you have it.
Exactly. Our CEO’s 24 and we’re all in our 20s as managers. And we employ youth. So you won’t see too many older folks. But you know, if they can keep up, they can get the job. We’re really active and that’s what sets us apart from everyone else.
What kind of person chooses this job?
Someone that’s usually a little bit on the hyperactive side. Definitely outgoing. I mean, you have to be creative, as well. So just people that love attention, because that’s what we’re trying to do in this job, is get attention to advertising.
What do you call yourselves? I read that there’s a term in the industry called “human directionals.”
Aarrow sign spinners. We try to differentiate ourselves from that — that’s one aspect of being an Aarrow sign spinner, is directing people toward a sales office or toward a product, but an Aarrow sign spinner does tricks for attention to direct the message. We don’t really like that (“human directional”) term.
What are some of the tricks in the book?
The Helicopter, Kick Flip, Side-Arm Toss.
OK, what’s the Helicopter?
You just basically spin it over your head like a helicopter blade.
Now, is there ever a concern that you’re going so quickly, you’re doing all of these different tricks, you’re spinning the sign, that somebody’s going to be driving past and not actually be able to read what’s written?
Well, we teach them every week at practices and boot camps, and we actually time our tricks, too, to where if you’re at a stoplight, you do a trick to get their attention and then freeze the sign so they can read it. So, hopefully we don’t miss targets. That’s what we’re trying not to do.
A lot of your market is real estate. Would you say that’s the majority?
Um, it used to be. However, as you’ve noticed, with the economy kind of shifting downward and real estate — we’re trying to go to other sectors, like luxury apartments, retail. And we do a lot of grand openings and special campaigns for record labels and Staples and Bud Light at the Super Bowl and a Seattle Seahawks game. We just try to shift sectors.
Shifting away a little bit from the real estate, did you notice that some of your primary clients were starting to draw back on their contracts?
Yeah, they started cutting back their hours and that’s understandable. There’s operating losses on a lot of fronts in real estate right now. But, you know, we shifted sectors, and we’ve actually continued to grow.
What are some of the challenges involved in spinning?
Hot days, cold days, rainy days, windy days.
Weather-related, as well as — it’s a stamina thing because you are active from five to seven hours. And that’s why we train people every week, so that they’ll be able to handle that. And we take kind of a sports approach to it, to where we coach them, get their endurance up, build their strength, so they can go out there and actually last five to seven hours.
Do people take snacks out there with them?
They usually bring water. And they get a paid half-hour break, depending on how long the shift is — you know, we comply with state laws and all of that good stuff.
What about loneliness? You’re out there by yourself with your sign and a water bottle.
Well, you have your iPod on usually.
That’s a big part, isn’t it — music and dancing.
Right, it’s rhythmic. It definitely helps.
Any restrictions on what people can do?
You can’t go in the street at all. That’s a big thing. A lot of local cities have banned sign-spinning — Solana Beach, El Cajon, places in Arizona have. So we just try to check local regulations. Obtain the permit if possible. If not, try to talk to someone, try to tell them what we’re all about.
Have you ever been successful convincing a local government that had one of these bans to let you spin in their city?
I know we’re trying to take steps with the cities of La Mesa and El Cajon. That’s an ongoing thing. And I think some places in Phoenix — I think we’ve been successful in the suburbs. For the most part, we don’t run into those problems because we check beforehand.
What’s your understanding of why they’ve banned it?
It’s basically a liability thing, as well as — for El Cajon, I was reading that, you know, they didn’t “want to turn it into Vegas.” They have laws on all types of temporary signage, not just sign spinning. And that’s generally what we get lumped into, when it comes to coding and stuff like that. I don’t know if that’s quite fair, but that’s the way it is.
There are contests and rankings in your company — what separates those winning spinners from the normal ones?
We actually just had our national convention in December, and there was a competition, which my old roommate won. There are judges — the CEO, the COO and, I believe, an outside judge. You do a Round Robin, and then you do brackets. So the best spinners from all of the markets come together and spin.
Coming up with their own moves?
Yeah, exactly — coming up with their own style and moves and stuff like that.
Have you come up with any of your own tricks that nobody else does?
Yeah, definitely. When you’re out there, you kind of want to experiment with the sign and see what works for you and create your own style. There’s kind of a competition within the company, too, between managers and spinners. Everybody wants to be the best.
Tell me about one of the ones that’s sort of one of your signatures.
Well, I’m kind of awkward with the sign, but I use my goofy personality, kind of, to persuade people to look at my advertisements. I try to spin it on my head from time to time, which wasn’t exactly invented by me. But you know, it’s one of my favorite moves.
Do you ever see someone spinning for another company and go talk to them about coming to work for your company?
Yeah, definitely, especially in the new cities that we go to. We see the sign-spinners and they look so sad. You know, we just offer them a better way of life. Better wages, most of the time, too. You get a 10-cent raise with every trick that you master.
What would be the typical wage for somebody who’s been at the company for, say, a year?
It really depends on the amount of tricks that you know. It’s probably about $13 an hour. If they’ve been with us for a year, it means that they’ve probably pretty much mastered spinning.
Do you ever see the opposite of that? Your employees going to other companies?
We actually have a no-competition clause when they sign up, so that doesn’t really happen. If it does, they’d be in trouble.
So what they learn with you stays with them — you don’t want them sharing with the other company. Do you have your tricks patented?
There’s not really a way to patent tricks. Our arrow shape and dimensions are patented. But check us out on YouTube — we’re trying our viral marketing. Our inter-company competitions.
That’s where people, if they’ve come up with a new trick, they might have a buddy just tape them, throw it up on YouTube —
Our marketing department often shoots videos in each market and puts them up there. You’ll see competition videos and some of the market’s best spinners.
Now, if I’m a spinner in Phoenix, and I’m watching YouTube and seeing someone in San Diego who’s just learned a new trick, am I just going to steal that trick right off of YouTube?
You could, but we encourage originality. So oftentimes we don’t like to do that.
Are there people that can’t spin?
Yeah, people that get injured easily. The elderly, probably not. But as long as you can keep up, there’s not really an ideal person.
Have you been injured spinning?
Yeah, we call it a ‘spinjury.’ I was spinning for Bud Light in Seattle. And I threw my sign in the air for a Side-Arm Toss and it hit me right in the face. I started bleeding a little bit but it was OK. So we have a lot of fun. … You have to keep your eyes on the sign, type of deal.
— Interview by KELLY BENNETT