If your company is on the mailing list for the annual Creative Marketing Alliance holiday card, you have seen CMA’s staff engaged in adventures that would make National Geographic jealous. They climb and they swing, they hang and they slide, they fly and they land among a wonderland of toys from Salvador Dali’s closet.

But like all creative enterprises that look easy, getting staffers to swing from ornaments, ride trains, and sled across Santa’s hat is a lot of work. Every December since 1992, CMA clients get to savor what the Clarksville Road-based marketing firm has come up with this time. But few are likely to have any idea that this little holiday treat is half a year in the making.

“The first year it started as kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing,” says Jeff Barnhart, founder and CEO of CMA. “Now we start planning at the end of July.”

Barnhart says the project starts with brainstorming that by the end of August yields the general direction for the theme. The company fleshes out the concept in September and finalizes what it wants to do in October. Photography begins in November, followed by the post-production work in Photoshop.

What began as a neat little idea soon became an expected part of the holiday season, so much so that Barnhart says clients have called in years when the card has gone out late, hoping they haven’t been taken off CMA’s mailing list.

The original card from 1992 introduced the staff as caricatures. The following year creative director Dave Sherwood arranged for a photo shoot and positioned the staff photos to look like each member’s head was peeking out of a gift box. And those were the days preceding Photoshop. Eventually Sherwood and the rest of the staff found themselves cavorting with snowmen, penguins, wooden soldiers, and, by 2008, their pets.

CMA specializes in marketing, communications, and association management and is an overtly pet-friendly company. In fact, the company’s pro-pet sentiments was the genesis of U.S. 1’s cover story on pets and professionals on June 23, 2010. In 2008 staff members brought in their four-legged companions — from cats and dogs to bunnies and turtles — for the holiday card that ended up getting the most feedback of any card CMA has ever sent out.

In general, “the feedback has been awesome,” Barnhart says. One client he met at a recent business function even told Barnhart that he has a drawer full of CMA cards — and that the annual mailing keeps CMA fresh in the client’s mind.

Part of the reason CMA mails a card is because, well, it’s December and that’s what you do. The other part is for marketing. The company is a creative agency, and if it can pull off an annual creative coup, it should do it and do it well. “We feel it really represents our product and our agency,” Barnhart says. “We work hard, we play hard. We’re a fun agency.”

Barnhart says he has enjoyed all the cards, from the silly ones with sleighs to the more somber and patriotic post-9/11 endeavor. His favorite came a few years ago. Barnhardt’s father-in-law is into woodworking and built a little wooden train set with five or six cars. The whole set was no larger than two feet long, but in the card the entire staff rode the rails. “We had people riding on the engine, on the caboose,” Barnhart says. “It was a chance to use something someone made personally, something fun and playful.”

The whole staff — 33 people this year — adorns the annual card, which is fitting because the whole staff contributes to it every year. The entire card, from concept through photography and onto final design, is done in-house. The only thing that happens outside of 191 Clarksville Road is the printing.

Barnhart says that every card so far has been challenging, but he likes that. Solving the issues of what to do and how to do it keeps everyone sharp. And making the impossible look like a trip through Pee-Wee’s Playhouse? “People don’t know how it’s done,” he says. “But that’s the mystique — looking at what we did and asking ‘How’d they do that?’”

Creative Marketing Alliance Inc. (CMA), 191 Clarksville Road, Box 727, Princeton Junction 08550; 609-799-6000; fax, 609-799-7032. Jeffrey E. Barnhart, president and CEO. Home page: www.cmasolutions.com.

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