Auto Dealers Hike Sales With Do-It-Yourself Ads

'Virtual Shop' PickNClick Signs 75 Clients, Looks to Take on New Categories

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Keith McKenzie, partner-general manager of Minnesota auto dealer Two Harbors Ford, once used various agencies to create a patchwork campaign to move 700 to 800 cars a year. Today, he's targeting better, has cut his ad costs 31% and has seen sales grow 10% -- all without a shop.
He's done so with PickNClick, an entirely automated ad-creation application. The service, which is part of Omnicom Group's Zimmerman Advertising, calls itself "the world's first completely virtual advertising agency," and Chairman Jordan Zimmerman hopes it will put his shop out of business someday. PickNClick is geared only to auto dealers, but Zimmerman is working on expanding it to the home-furnishings and real-estate industries.

"This is the only place where you can go as any one of our automotive clients and build a completely dynamic print, radio, TV, direct-mail, point-of-purchase, online and/or strategy-driven creative campaign on your own," said Michael Gelfano, Zimmerman's VP-retail technologies.

Fill 'er up
PickNClick creates a self-service, user-friendly interface that takes a client through a series of ad-building questions, each specific to the company profile. You deal only with Nissans? You can choose from stills or video footage of Nissans. You sell in California? Then you'll be presented with the disclaimers specific to that state.

Dealers can choose from 150 different print layouts and 3,900 different TV spot elements. For further personalization, PickNClick will send a freelance videographer to a dealer's lot to create intros and outros, and clients can ask the creative staff to develop customized logos. A dealer may have to wait several weeks for such customization, but once those elements are done, dealers can put together an ad in less than 10 minutes.

A client can even use PickNClick to send completed ads out to media outlets.

Launched in February, PickNClick culled 52 clients in its first 60 days. Today, four months into version 2.0, 75 advertisers have used the service. Zimmerman CMO Michael Goldberg believes that client base will grow quickly. "There are over 22,000 dealers in the U.S.," he said, "and probably 80% could not afford an agency like [Zimmerman]." Now they can.

Monthly charges
Unlike Spot Runner, a similar service that offers only TV commercials and charges by the spot, PickNClick works on a monthly subscription basis. An unlimited number of print ads will run a dealer $799 per month, unlimited radio or TV spots is $1,499 per month and unlimited creation of all three is $1,999 per month.

Customization is what drove AutoNation, the country's largest auto retailer with 327 franchises in the U.S. that move approximately 600,000 vehicles a year, to sign up for PickNClick.

"Every market is a little bit different, and each store promotes different types of cars. Something like this gives us easy access and the ability to market quickly and efficiently," said Mark Cannon, senior VP-corporate communications. "What's amazing is that you can set it up where the parameters allow you to keep a consistency across all of your shops."

For Two Harbors Ford's Mr. McKenzie, the appeal is targeting. "Right now under my 'Dealing Days' campaign, I am offering an F-150 truck on one media, a Grand Marquis on another media and offering the Ford Focus on another. Everyone hears the same 'Dealing Days' theme, but the offer is built for who my target audience is."

Not only has he cut his ad costs and boosted sales, his turnaround time for ads is now a matter of hours.

Metrics star
Warren Midtown Motors Ford in Pennsylvania has been using PickNClick ever since employees saw the application demonstrated at the National Auto Dealers convention in February. Kevin Ruttenbur, general manager, claims the real beauty of the product is the Z-track metrics program, which allows him to better understand what outreach is working and when.

Both Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Ruttenbur are planning to use PickNClick for satellite dealerships within their networks. PickNClick 2.5 (due out in another three or four months) will also offer a calendaring system on which to lay out a marketing and media strategy.

The application, however, is not without its limitations. While PickNClick does offer banner-ad and e-mail creation, website creation and search-engine optimization are still beyond the self-service realm. It also has no automated media buying yet, though Zimmerman will be happy to help with that. As for planning and strategy, PickNClick can help devise strategy for "Platinum-Level" clients (a more customized offering than the three basic memberships), but it will also offer advice depending on a dealer's region and market size.

While the technology itself seems hardly different than a visit to Amazon.com -- and thus easily clone-able -- Mr. Gelfano argues that the differentiating factor is and always will be Zimmerman expertise. "All of our business knowledge and retailing expertise has been infused into the system," he said. And as for those creatives still screaming in horror over the very thought of automated advertising? "We've commoditized the process," Mr. Gelfano said, "not the creative."

How PickNClick works



Clients use simple drop-down menus to build radio, print, TV or online ads for their car dealerships. It has taken the PickNClick creators three years to break down the Zimmerman Agency's advertising process into a user-friendly interface. Today, users can choose from more than 150 different print layouts and 3,900 different TV spot elements to create and send out ads in under 10 minutes. Depending on the level of a client's monthly subscription, PickNClick will also create dealer-specific logos and commercial intros. Future applications may include interfaces for real-estate agencies, furniture retailers and even political campaigns.
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