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Tracking the art of the pitch

Mass ads, pretty pictures don't cut it, advertisers say.

By Paul Swider, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - The popular cable television show Mad Men reveals the sexy 1960s heyday of Madison Avenue, when clever people in crisp suits devised creative campaigns in back rooms, then imprinted them on the American mind.

But those days are long gone, say those at modern agencies, who now must compete in multiple communications platforms yet satisfy clients' growing desire for highly specific results.

"Today, we live in a 100 percent transparent environment. We like to say that creative that doesn't work is just art," said Paul Soltoff, chief executive of SendTec, a Gateway-based ad agency that builds on Soltoff's Saatchi & Saatchi roots but adds a huge technology department to track ad effectiveness.

The adage on advertising, attributed to John Wanamaker, is that half the money spent is wasted, but no one knows which half.

Technology now makes it possible to know what works, which is what drives multibillion-dollar valuations for Google and Yahoo.

But that doesn't always translate to other media, like print or even television, yet these are still important ways to reach customers. Agencies are getting creative in whole new ways to get clients' products in front of buyers.

"Mass ads don't do it anymore," said Ali Pincus, director of digital services at Aspen Marketing's downtown office. "It's all about one-to-one marketing."

Aspen doesn't do much traditional advertising but helps clients set up kiosks at fairs or malls. Potential customers can browse information about mobile phones, for instance, but while clients are perusing, Aspen is tracking what they read, for how long, what came before and what comes next, all with an eye toward refining the client's message to the market.

SendTec does similar work but in the wild of the Internet. Its IT department crunches algorithms to best understand how Web wanderers might think about a client's product category, and then tries to corral them into a long, detailed visit.

"People think Google has the magic stuff, but it's the marketer," said SendTec's president Eric Obeck. "Once we can crack the code, they won't leave."

But not everyone is online all the time, so magazines and TV shows are still important avenues .

The trouble is, there's no obvious way to track eyes on a printed page or a flashing tube not connected to the Web.

"A media mix is still necessary, but it's still very difficult to do a true estimate of what media work," said Dave DiMaggio, vice president and creative director at downtown's Paradise Advertising and Marketing. "Our industry has always had pressure to perform, but now there's a shift to what the client perceives as important."

DiMaggio recalls an instance when he got a client's product placed on the hit show Friendsand sales tripled, yet he knew he couldn't literally prove a connection. Another client was apologizing to the board of directors for only a small increase in sales until DiMaggio showed him that the competition was losing five times as much.

"When you're looking at a sea of data, you have to correctly analyze it," he said. "Hits on a Web site are easy, but you need other data, too."

Off-line advertising will now direct people to Web sites so they can be observed. But even that has levels of subtlety as advertisers create specific "landing pages" to coordinate with a given campaign. Users see the same Web site, but the advertiser knows exactly how they arrived. The same occurs more simply with coupons or even campaign-specific telephone numbers.

"A lot of times, it's seamless to the end user," said Jay Donaldson, vice president of interactive marketing for FKQ Advertising and Marketing in Clearwater.

Donaldson recalled the short-lived CueCat, a tiny scanner people were to use to scan bar codes in ads and receive information. That failed, but text messaging a specific number in an ad achieves similar results, as can new technology that lets people take camera-phone pictures of an advertisement and be connected.

"You want to try to create an ecosystem," Donaldson said, "so you can rifle market as opposed to a shotgun approach and get down to the exact person in the exact household, rather than just hit a ZIP code."

Despite a proliferation of media, they are all converging, Soltoff said. Though no one is yet sure how it will play out, it is likely that our reading, viewing, talking and surfing will all be over the same pipes and allow broader understanding of how to reach potential buyers.

Technology will be important then, he said, but is more vital now because it has to knit a chaos of channels into value, not just image.

"Our stuff has to work," he said. "This isn't about making pretty pictures."

Paul Swider can be reached at or 892-2271.

[Last modified February 17, 2008, 00:02:29]

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