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Best & Brightest Special Report: Mass Transit founders take express into media biz

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Introduced to each other by an acquaintance in the New York music scene nearly a decade ago, Jason Heller originally tried to get Jason "J.B." Burnham to help him create a Web site for his four independent record labels. However, it was Burnham who talked Heller into starting Mass Transit Interactive in 1998.

It looks as if Burnham's was the better idea.

With clients and marketing partners including DoubleClick Inc., Digital Pulp Inc., Office.com Inc., KSL Media Inc. and Alta Vista, Mass Transit has rapidly grown into an online advertising agency that will bill "close to $50 million" in 2000 and employ a staff of 20, according to Heller, 26.

"We don't miss the music scene," Burnham, also 26, said. "Not at all."

Burnham, CEO, and Heller, president-media director, have made their mark by developing groundbreaking Internet advertising and marketing programs for their high profile b-to-b clients and by forging strategic partnerships. The agency targets its comprehensive online media buying, planning and management solutions at ad agencies and dot-coms.

"We're not outsourced vendors and we refuse to work with anyone who looks at us as vendors," Heller said. "We pitch clients alongside our agency partners and we work closely with the creative teams. We're a seamless extension of their staffs."

What's helped Mass Transit's success is the duo's firm belief that any Internet b-to-b campaign has to include a direct response mechanism. "I couldn't create a banner ad if my life depended on it, but I can help that creative outperform any of its competition," Heller said. "We know what works and what doesn't work on the Internet, and we know how to optimize a client's budget to net the greatest return. We share insights with our partners, why certain creative works better online and what it takes to make an online media campaign work."

Even Internet ad-server DoubleClick turns to its agency, Digital Pulp and media partner Mass Transit for help buying its own media. "There's a big difference in saying you do Internet media and doing it well," Heller said. "Too many companies, including those in the industry, don't buy it correctly. That's where we come in."

Mass Transit quickly has become known for its uncanny ability to ferret out the best use of sizes, shapes and contextually relevant placements on Web sites. "The primary focus is on direct marketing," Burnham said. "That's our background and we stick to that. "

Mass Transit always examines clients' returns on investment, even if that isn't an explicit instruction from the client.

"We delve into determining whether the media placements they want are a good fit among their advertising, a Web site and actual user experiences on that Web site," said Burnham. "The biggest thing about the Internet is the accountability and the interactivity with customers. We spend a lot of time on ROI, because if we can determine what it actually costs a business to win that customer, we can help them decrease their customer acquisition costs tremendously."

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