INTERACTIVE;MEDIA & MARKETING;HOT WHEELS: TRUE NORTH'S QUEST FOR MATTEL;A BEHIND-THE-SCENES LOOK AT WHAT IT TAKES TO MAKE A PITCH FOR THE WEB

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This could be it, David Clauson thought. This could be the account to build TN Technologies into a public company.

"This" was the news that Mattel, a client of True North Communications' Foote, Cone & Belding in Los Angeles, was seeking a Web agency.

It was December 1995, and Mr. Clauson, TNT's senior VP-general manager, was in a particularly good mood. The recently launched Levi Strauss & Co. Web site was a success. TNT, a high-tech joint venture between True North and R/GA Digital Studios, had grown to $70 million in billings.

And now, looming on the horizon, was an initial public offering.

This is the story of a pitch.

This is the story of where the Web fits in a marketing plan. How a traditional agency competes against a hotshot interactive shop. What makes for compelling online creative.

And, finally, how a chance at a piece of business with as little as $30,000 in revenue but priceless glamor can be monumentally important for a few dreamers ready to strike out on their own.

THE FIRST DAY

Wednesday, Jan. 3: In a windowless San Francisco conference room borrowed from the Levi's Jeans for Women Think Tank, the TNT crew huddles with Mr. Clauson, once a Navy ROTC and just back from a pre-pitch meeting with Mattel.

He's flattered that only agencies with creative credentials were invited into the pitch, and guesses TNT will be up against Ogilvy & Mather, whose Los Angeles office handles Barbie, her Web site and other Mattel business; Young & Rubicam; and possibly Organic Online, TNT's partner on the Levi's Web site.

But his enthusiasm is tempered by Mattel's highly technical Request For Proposal.

More so, he's concerned about an "all over the place" discussion of Mattel Media, the PC software arm, during the Los Angeles briefing.

"We know nothing [about Mattel Media] other than we're going to have some CD-ROMs in September," he tells the troops.

Hot Wheels handlers, on the other hand, have a clear target perspective: men 28 to 45, from diehard collectors to casual browsers, who could be enticed to purchase $200 car sets.

Reading from notes he took at the briefing, Mr. Clauson proclaims the Hot Wheels new-prod- uct criteria as the Web site mantra: "Power, performance and attitude."

Hot Wheels ideas flow: what's new in the collection; online chat with actual designers; hot links to retailers; and, of course, frequently asked questions. A Hot Wheels newsletter could be distributed in exchange for demographic and psychographic information.

The path to transactions online-one very juicy prospect for TNT-could be blazed with a collectors' classified section.

Project Manager W. Russell Quinan has discovered a Sunnyvale, Calif., man whose publications set prices for Hot Wheels collectibles. The team decides it will pay a visit.

Next on the agenda is Mattel Media, one of dozens of companies competing in the PC games market.

The site must have a playful element. But first, who is the target? How old must children be before they use the Web themselves?

Mr. Clauson, one of the few parents in the room, ends the discussion. "Parents are a critical part of this."

THE WORK BEGINS

Wednesday, Feb. 7: The group is gathered in a much more comfortable conference room with leather chairs. On the speakerphone is Colin Cook, interactive executive producer at R/GA, Los Angeles, the True North joint venture partner.

Topic one: lunch with a Hot Wheels collector extraordinaire and a visit with his 25,000 miniature vehicles. He is considered a voice of credibility on the Hot Wheels site; an ask-the-expert area is in the offing.

Mr. Cook jumps in from the black box in with the invariable L.A. perspective.

"He could be a great asset-an obvious. Get him in on Monday and bind him. Let's make sure we tie him up [by contract] the right way."

Mr. Clauson isn't enthusiastic. "I don't want to get into that."

Copywriter Martin Lauber, his baseball cap on backwards, interrupts.

He's learned Hot Wheels collectors, generally, don't trust Mattel. In fact, Mattel has its own misgivings about collectors, barring some from certain Hot Wheels offices.

Mr. Quinan rolls a half-dozen Hot Wheels across the table as the team debates the issue. Mr. Lauber has a solution.

More than two dozen Hot Wheels collectors clubs operate throughout the nation, each with as many as 100 members. He wants site architecture to include local club information, including allowing chapter presidents an opportunity to post notices.

Mr. Clauson rolls a red Hot Wheels emergency vehicle as the group ponders what it will take for a marketer to go on the Web.

Tim Price, a seasoned creative who has worked on Levi's Web site, suggests a booklet for prospective Web clients to appreciate what new media will cost, to know "what they can expect to invest, not just in money [for Web site creation] but for people and resources."

Creative for the Hot Wheels site, developed by Mr. Lauber and Art Director Sam Osselaer, percolates. The concept: a garage. The idea is that the virtual visitor will get a sneak look inside a Hot Wheels design studio. The first page shows garage doors opening. Another page shows a car on a lift; the car is replaced regularly.

The vision is embellished. Web site visitors could design their own Hot Wheels vehicle to navigate the site. A tool box could have a bottom drawer to store a visitor's online collection. Visitors could participate in a contest to design cyber cars; Hot Wheels designers could pick winners.

Money could be made in a Jump Start section where starter collection kits and T-shirts, hats and other merchandise would be sold.

The garage concept gets Mr. Clauson's blessing with a big "terrific work," reminding, though, the site "must have an emotional component, emotional heat that somehow has to come out."

Now to the Mattel Media site.

"Does anyone have any concern other than what in hell is it?" Mr. Clauson asks.

Digital designer Henry Eakland to the rescue: "We've got it." The plan is to reach children 2 to 12 with a site based on an outer space metaphor.

Some areas will include a forum for parents. Another area will house discussions on topics such as why play is important to childhood development.

To collect visitor data, parents would be enticed to give some information in exchange for Barbie sending a child a birthday greeting.

Now, "If we could just get some sound in there for kids who can't read," Mr. Eakland says. But the space idea is rejected.

THE CREATIVE TAKES SHAPE

Wednesday, Feb. 21: The pigeons on the sill outside Dave Clauson's glass-walled corner office can't compete with the squawking inside, where his telephone is conferenced in with Los Angeles.

"Hello," Los Angeles says. "Hello, hello," says the team in San Francisco. "Are you there? We can't hear you," replies R/GA's Mr. Cook. Along with him is Ms. Osselaer.

Today's plan is to view the '70s hot rod-style garage design via Creative Partner, a hardware and software setup allowing creatives in two different locations to work on the same material in real time.

As the team sits poised around the computers in Mr. Clauson's office, the screens aren't performing as intended.

"Get a dweeb to look at it," the box commands.

One is sent for, as Ms. Osselaer continues, describing the version of the site dubbed Custom DeeLuxe.

"It's really cool. We can change the car out monthly and make it into a game, with some kind of prize. It's really cool."

The creative work now reveals itself on the computer screen in San Francisco. Ms. Osselaer's partner, Mr. Lauber, looks. He's reticent. He tries to get a word in, but the speakerphone keeps drowning him out.

Mr. Lauber, gesturing, up in front of the speakerphone: "I'm nervous about Custom DeeLuxe. The danger, Sam, is that DeeLuxe-either they're going to love it or hate it. You're going to hit a huge home run or they're not going to take it."

A decision is made to offer two graphic iterations of the same basic Hot Wheels architecture, one in a traditional style, and one in Custom DeeLuxe. Mr. Lauber wants assurance the designers will spend as much time on the original project as they do on their pet project.

Ms. Osselaer: "We're all in sync."

THE COUNTDOWN BEGINS

Sunday, Feb. 25: The presentation deadline looms just 48 hours away.

Mr. Quinan moseys to the office, buoyed by the news, acquired from a secret source, that just one competitor remains, Cupertino interactive hot shop CKS Partners.

He's heard that only a handful of Mattel executives attended CKS' presentation.

"Brand managers didn't even stay!" he gloats.

Mr. Eakland, who's pulled some all-nighters, and copywriter Tracy Cohen, a South African in a backwards baseball cap, have the Mattel Media site running.

The splash page offers five languages, from English to German. The concept is a colorful game board, with a lot of white space. Download time is fast.

Ms. Cohen is excited about a Tinkerbell-like character, which would guide parents.

In a section called Parentville, adults could learn to be a kid again and play games with their children. Discussions would be held with experts on issues such as the technology gender gap. There'd be a "safety net" section offering information on protecting children on the Net. Tech support would get the friendly euphemism "Helping Hand."

One of the most important parts of the proposed site for Mattel, however, is the data capture section, represented by Treasure Island, complete with pirate ship.

Visitors would be urged to "join the crew."

In exchange for a lot of demographic information, Mattel would offer parents an opportunity to become a "parent partner" and help evaluate new products. For less demographic information, Mattel would send online birthday greetings from Barbie or notes marking cultural events such as holidays in Africa or other locations.

Because all the design for this project is being done at TNT, work is progressing smoothly. But like the Hot Wheels creative, there's a long way to go.

TOMORROW'S THE DAY

Tuesday, Feb. 27: The team, pumped and ready, packs for a pre-pitch run-through at R/GA and bumps through a major winter rainstorm into Los Angeles International Airport, where Mr. Clauson checks his voice mail. Mattel has canceled Wednesday's meeting because key executives were called away.

"Welcome to the world of new business," he says.

Deflated, the team drives to R/GA and spends the day polishing its work.

"We are the resource that puts the brand into the site," Mr. Clauson reminds. "If we don't establish that relationship really clearly, we're less competitive than we could be."

In reality, the cancelled pitch meeting proves a blessing.

"We're feeling our way along as we create these new marketing vehicles," Mr. Clauson says. "A key insight we got .*.*. was that even with Creative Partner [the video linkup technology], there is no substitute for putting 12 people around a table and thrashing it out."

TIME TO LOCK AND LOAD

Monday, March 4: Mr. Clauson, in jeans and a black baseball cap, gathers the team in a conference room near his office. The pitch has been rescheduled for Friday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

"Now, we know when the game is. We need to lock and load," he tells the group.

That means details, details.

Presentation details. The time for the pitch is not ideal.

"On Friday at 1 p.m., we're the only thing between them and lunch."

Minds might also start to wander to the weekend. "Stay tightly focused and that way you don't have to rush."

Who will stand where? Mr. Clauson, at the easel, maps a new seating plan to get clients closer to the screen. Who will click what? "Do not surf your site," he urges. Take it slow.

What about a leave-behind? Copywriter Lauber's idea is a URL with a few sample screens, "the kind of thing CKS would do-it's flashy, techie." Coach Clauson: "Given more time, it's something I would push for." In other words, forget it.

How about a mouse pad, someone pipes up.

Director Clauson: "No tchotchkes. Wrong. Don't overthink it."

Art details. Ms. Osselaer is concerned she needs to return to Los Angeles to babysit the graphics. Director Clauson: "No one is going to tell me they didn't have enough time on this one-that includes R/GA."

Clothing decisions. Is Friday casual day? How casual? Nothing less dressy than a coat and tie.

Technical decisions. What if Barbie's hair color is wrong. What if the car's not exactly Hot Wheels orange?

Mr. Clauson: "Never apologize. Never explain. At 1 p.m. when this thing is over, it's the idea..."

FULL-COURTYARD PRESS

Thursday, March 7: After the short flight from San Francisco, the TN team arrives at R/GA's Los Angeles office, the once glamorous Sunset Boulevard mansion of Edgar Bergen.

First, a late lunch at the Cat and Fiddle in R/GA's adjoining courtyard. But the TNTers are salivating more over the IPO than they are over the veggie burgers and fish and chips. Are we eligible, they want to know.

Mr. Clauson, in a former life an assistant dean at UCLA, teaches. "When the lawyers say you can't talk about this for 45 days, you know you're in good shape." But the road to Oz has its perils.

"First we have to decide, what is the company. I'd like to know who are the clients, personally," Mr. Clauson says.

Then, like a bigger-than-life genie out of the bottle, or in this case, the telephone speakerbox, R/GA's Mr. Cook, a towering 6-foot-8, appears at the garden table. "We don't need money, Dave. It's a cyber world."

In twilight, the team moves to nestle in R/GA's conference room for the final pre-pitch workout.

Click on the Custom DeeLuxe Hot Wheels page and you get power, performance and attitude via the new audio clip of a hot rod revving up and making a peeling turn. But it's too loud. Director Clauson: "Lower it."

Then there's the nerve-jarring sound of a guard dog barking on the second Hot Wheels version. Whenever the cursor moves, the dog lets forth a menacing alarm.

Director Clauson: "That barking noise gets annoying." Mr. Cook settles the issue: "One bark. We're agreed. Move on."

There's machine gun fire from the Mattel Media home page. It's not supposed to sound that way, but that's what the animated Mattel logo, intended to resemble a roulette wheel, sounds like. Director Clauson again: "Turn down the sound."

The sound he really wants is that of points being made.

"Don't rush....If the equipment messes up, keep going. Keep it loose. If it starts to feel long to you, it's going to feel long to the audience."

As music from the courtyard restaurant wafts into the room, the team breaks up into small groups for intense rehearsals. Mr. Clauson and Mr. Quinan sit facing a wall onto which tomorrow's presentation is projected.

Mr. Quinan displays a chart showing the research the team has done about the generally poor attitude collectors have toward Mattel.

Director Clauson cautions: "You don't want them to feel like it's a problem for them. It's an opportunity."

Mr. Quinan begins to read each point in the chart.

Mr. Clauson interjects. "I mean it. I'm going to cut your salary if you read every one of them." He removes himself from the room.

Mr. Quinan takes off his glasses. Rubs each eye. One at a time. Copywriter Lauber touches Mr. Quinan's shoulder. "Russell, there's something to say about having confidence in yourself."

Mr. Quinan pulls his fingers through his hair. "I'm absolutely brain dead right now. What I want to do is get up early in the morning."

Director Clauson returns to the room. Spend some time with it yourself, he tells Mr. Quinan. They'll practice together again in the morning.

WATCHING...AND WAITING

On Friday, March 8, the team makes its presentation at Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. Mr. Clauson thinks the Mattel Media creative was well received. Hot Wheels was not. He expects a decision that afternoon, or perhaps Monday.

No word comes. Mr. Clauson gets a call the next week, asking him and a few team members to return to Los Angeles to present Mattel Media creative to the Mattel executive board, including Jill Barad, president and chief operating officer.

Expectations run high; some think the Barbie home page, at Ogilvy, might just fall to TNT as well. TNT is confident the nod will come at the end of this meeting. It does not.

THE REST OF THE STORY

Thursday, March 28: It's 5 p.m. Mr. Clauson is in the middle of a credentials meeting for the $40 million Hewlett-Packard Co. printer review. He's pulled from the room to take a phone call.

Mattel tells him a decision has been made. For economic reasons, the company decided to hire its own online staff and handle the projects in-house.

Mr. Clauson accepts the news with a grudging understanding. "The only thing that can be repurposed is the experience," he says later. Yet, still in an optimistic mode, he hopes Mattel might change its mind.

"It's like a football game that ends in a tie. The story's not finished yet, in my book."

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