Mark Phillips makes a pretty good living as a magician, but it’s not easy money. This former Army brat and class clown, who is rarely without a deck of cards in his hand, grinds out his business like a hard-nosed entrepreneur.
Practice, practice, practice. Memorization. Cold-calling businesses. That’s all part of the game. His business is not little kids’ birthday parties or Las Vegas glamour. Instead, his bread and butter is the trade show.
Companies pay him thousands of dollars to troll the floor of a convention center performing his close-up magic tricks while delivering his clients’ corporate message. His 12-minute act runs twice an hour, six to eight hours a day.
The big challenge is getting the clients to hire him in the first place.
“My biggest competition is a company doing nothing,” said the 52-year-old Rockville, Md., resident. “Let’s face it. It’s kind of a risk to go to their boss to say, ‘We need $10,000 for this magician.’ The boss is going to say, ‘A magician?’ ”
I get it. Remember last year ago when the Government Services Administration got a PR spanking after it spent $823,000 on a 2010 Las Vegas conference that featured a magician (not Phillips) and a mind reader?
Another enemy is the acquisition. When one of his clients gets purchased, the new owner invariably kills the magician contract.
“I have had eight companies get bought by Cisco, and lost all those clients,” he said.
Phillips’s client roll reads like the Fortune 500 list: Freddie Mac, MCI, Siemens, General Electric, Sprint, Hewlett Packard, Anheuser-Busch and Konica/Minolta. His craft has taken him around the world, including Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo.
“It’s a pretty long way from the word ‘magician’ to what I am for them, which is an attention-getting marketing tool,” he said.
He charges $6,000 to $8,000 for a three-day trade show, not including travel expenses. He generally charges by the show instead of by the day in order to increase his earnings. His six-figure income is climbing, though it isn’t back to the $300,000 he made during the tech bubble and before the financial crisis. But it’s enough for Phillips and his wife, who works in the Montgomery County school system, to support two children.
“I do between 12 and 15 trade shows a year, which are three or four days each,” he said.
He also does single-event shows such as company retreats. And he spends about 30 days a year on cruise ships, where he can bring a guest and the cruise line pays about $2,000 a week plus room and board.
Demand is way down since the economy imploded in 2008. He used to book shows a year in advance. Now they come with one month’s notice. But things are finally starting to pick up.
When business slows, he simply goes to trade shows — Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Las Vegas — where he cold-calls business booths, showing his tricks firsthand and trying to drum up work.
One of his pitches involves turning a handful of $1 bills into $100 bills. “Wouldn’t that be nice to make this kind of return on your investment?” he asks his targets. “There’s nothing like a handful of $100 bills to get someone’s attention.”
Magic wasn’t exactly in the cards for Phillips. His father, uncle and grandfather were West Point graduates. Phillips loved performing, even if his constant chatter got him sent to the principal’s office. In ninth grade, he bought a book called “Magic Digest,” by George B. Anderson.
He started performing magic in high school and worked the kids’ birthday party circuit. He put himself through Arizona State University near Phoenix, where he studied microbiology as a backup plan if his magic career disappeared. He paid for college by performing magic tricks at local restaurants and the Phoenix Playboy Club.
“If working the Playboy Club doesn’t make you want to go into show business, then nothing will,” he said.
He moved to New York after graduation and hung out with other would-be magicians at magic shops such as Tannen’s, where everyone tried out their latest tricks.
He started picking up work on Wall Street during the 1980s heyday, charging $400 an hour at company parties.
Phillips wanted to mine the corporate business world more but wasn’t sure how to go about it. So he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie Sales Course in New York, which gave him confidence and taught him exactly what to say when pitching to clients.
Now he practices several hours a day. He said he is best at close-up magic, which allows him to talk about a client’s business at the same time he is entertaining a small group with his sleight-of-hand tricks.
Twenty years of practice has made him pretty nimble with a deck of cards. If you name a card, such as king of clubs, Phillips said, he can extract it from the deck in two seconds without you noticing.
His most difficult trick is one in which he must talk lucidly and entertainingly while shuffling three decks perfectly in half. If the split deck is off by one card, the trick will not work.
That kind of multitasking is essential to his client work.
“I take the core message that they want to convey and weave that into my act,” he said.
His first big client was Brother International, which sells fax machines. His task for Brother at the giant Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was pulling a fax machine out of a two-inch-thick briefcase.
“When people hear the word ‘magic,’ they don’t hear what I do. They are imagining Uncle Pete, so they think magicians are boring. Once people see how I am able to integrate the message and how attractive it is, then the gears in their head start to roll and think, ‘He can actually work for us.’ ”
It’s not simple. Phillips studies the company message for up to a month, familiarizing himself so he can perform his magic while talking about the client.
Phillips spends half the day trying to find new clients. He has a virtual assistant, a woman who works in Oregon, whom he pays to send out mass e-mails on his talents to companies and associations. He has a snazzy Web site for his business, called Thin Air.
When responses come in, Phillips follows up with a call.
“At first, they are often very dubious,” he said. To persuade them, he will customize a video for the company to view.
He also has agents and fellow magicians who call him, offering leads.
One came in just last week. Phillips is headed to San Francisco next month for a trade show on cloud computing.
Sounded like the right crowd for a magician who pulls things of out thin air.
For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.