NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In a world with arguably countless opportunities online to "meet" people -- as well as feel-good ads that tell the storybook tales of found love -- where does a traditional dating site fit in and stand out? Finding that sweet spot amid the Facebooks and eHarmonys is the task of Mandy Ginsberg, exec VP-general manager of Match.com, and she's relying on the stark reality of actual dates -- and, for the first time, no agency -- to get it done. And so far, it's paying dividends: Match.com, an IAC company, has seen meteoric growth in the last quarter in both revenue and new subscribers. Late last week Match.com CEO Greg Blatt was named CEO of IAC.
By the end of the year, it will have dropped 100 different commercials in its latest campaign, launched in May. And all those spots have been shot, produced and edited without a creative agency. The latest campaign features real Match users on real dates, filmed with reality-TV production company Picture Shack.
This no-entertainment-agency strategy has meant many late nights and weekend calls for Ms. Ginsberg, who heads marketing strategy for the site's North American operations, but it's also been fruitful: Match.com increased paid subscribers 30% year-over-year during the third quarter and increased profit by nearly 50%.
The reality-TV-style campaign came a year after Match split with Hanft, Raboy and Partners -- ending a six-year relationship -- and selected Campbell Ewald, who launched "The Beginning" campaign, the predecessor to this current effort. But then the idea to film real dates with Picture Shack came up and Campbell's role became moot.
"So we ended up going down that path with just the production company," said Ms. Ginsberg, who left her role as VP-worldwide marketing at software company i2 Technologies in 2006 to serve as general manager of Match sibling site Chemistry.com. She later moved to head marketing for all of Match.com North America. (Match, which spent $54 million in U.S. measured media in 2009, according to Kantar Media, still has a media agency; Mullen, Boston, has placed those 100 spots.)
Ms. Ginsberg, a self-professed risk-taker who's committed to being honest with her customers in a category where over-selling is the norm, talked to Ad Age about why Match.com is focusing on first dates, rather than lifelong love and marriage, as well as the trials of going without an agency and juggling 100 spots. (And in case you're wondering, Ms. Ginsberg met her husband eight years ago at work, not on Match -- though a childhood friend and her CEO's brother both met their spouses on the site.)
Ad Age: What preconceptions in the marketplace were you dealing with?
Ms. Ginsberg: Match is a big place, but to humanize it, we showed all the great people you can meet. But we took a step back at the end of 2009 to really focus on the value proposition. At the end of the day, we really want to get people to meet, to have email communications, to go on dates. We wanted to focus on the beginning of those relationships. What we were trying to encapsulate was the journey, not the destination, and show that success on Match is going out on a great date that will end up in a relationship and marriage.
Ad Age: How did that play out?
Ms. Ginsberg: The first campaign launched at the end of 2009: "The Beginning" campaign, which really got to the beginning hopefulness of relationships. People liked the campaign, but something was nagging me. I really wanted to go to a place that was real, authentic and raw, and that showed that hopefulness of people going on a first date. So we did something that was a little untraditional. We talked to a company called Picture Shack that did work in reality TV. We then identified two people on Match and asked them to go on a date. We put a mic on their backs. They had never met each other, and we basically got out of the way. You saw a lot of excitement of the date, and also the awkwardness. What we realized is that we were on to something interesting.
Ad Age: What's the benefit to potential users of Match of showing real people?
Ms. Ginsberg: Our biggest competitor features people who have met and married and share their testimonials about how happy they are and how in love they are [in ads]. But that seems a very long way out for the consumer. The consumer insight is that, particularly for people who are divorced or don't have social circles where they can meet a lot of people, meeting someone great is not that far away. If we can just show the experience, more people will think the bar has been lowered.
Ad Age: How did this new creative strategy affect your media strategy?
Ms. Ginsberg: Even if you look at some big brands that run two or three campaigns at a time like Geico, I never have had any colleagues talk about the sheer number of spots [we see in this campaign]. They always talk about burnout, where you have a certain amount of time to run a certain number of spots. For us, what's been a big shift is putting the sheer number of spots in the market and part of that is to reflect this pulse of so many dates happening at any given moment. I talk to friends [in marketing] and they think it's crazy. They say, "How can you afford it?"
Ad Age: How can you afford it?
Ms. Ginsberg: This all happened with the same production budget, because of the way we're shooting and the way we're working without an ad agency. How did you end up without an agency?
We were in an RFP process and we had this idea. We had this vision about the campaign, and when we started talking directly with the production company, we decided to try this out with one date. When you work with an agency, you work with many different vendors. With Picture Shack, it was a one-stop shop. We used directors [our contact has] worked with and then everything was done in the production shop form pre-production all the way through to editing. We have the same team touch every piece of the entire campaign; I think it's pretty unheard of in the industry.
Ad Age: Has the approach put more on you?
Ms. Ginsberg: It has. To be honest, I don't think we realized how much work it would be without an agency. We've definitely been looking opportunistically for agencies to work on different initiatives, but so much of our business is about advertising and the perceptions in the marketplace, we really had to be close to it. The agency-company relationships are changing. If consumers change so quickly and fundamentally on the internet, especially [as they have] in the last 12 to 24 months, agency roles are changing, too. That's why we're working with a small team of innovative people who can jump in and roll up their sleeves and own this with us, vs. hiring large agencies.
Ad Age: How was the whole 100-spot, no-agency approach received internally?
Ms. Ginsberg: At the beginning of 2010, I never imagined we would be producing almost 100 spots this year! But Greg [Blatt, former Match CEO and now CEO of IAC] and I had a vision which was to demonstrate Match's value -- meeting new people and going out on great dates. Once we saw the charming moments, we realized we had something special.
Ad Age: What keeps you up at night?
Ms. Ginsberg: There are more than 92 million singles in the U.S. and yet only a small percentage use an online dating site. Part of our job is to let people know it is a great way to meet new people and continue to break down the stigma.