Media Edge: Media Agency of the Year

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Maybe all that needs to be said about Media Edge is that the New York-based agency's Mitch Burg. That executive once turned a tiny $25,000 ad deal into a loyalty program for the Ponderosa Steakhouse chain.

A decade ago, the National Motor Coach Association found itself negotiating with Mr. Burg, then at Media Edge predecessor N.W. Ayer & Partners, New York, on what appeared to be a simple, one-dimensional deal. The association wanted Mr. Burg's client, Ponderosa, to run an ad before a movie it showed on its bus tours for senior citizens.

Mr. Burg thought that was a dandy idea: Dollar-conscious seniors enjoy Ponderosa and its all-you-can-eat buffets.

But he wasn't content to just buy the ad space. He saw this as a direct revenue opportunity.

"Where's the bus going to stop to eat?" he asked the people on the other side of the table.

The association had no set destination.

HIJACKED TO PONDEROSA

So Mr. Burg persuaded the tour operator to send all its buses to Ponderosas for meals and hand out discount coupons to entice passengers to return after their trip.

"I looked at him and said, `You just hijacked those passengers,' " recounted long-time colleague Beth Gordon, now Media Edge chairman-CEO of worldwide operations.

Mr. Burg, now president of Media Edge North America, denies the charges. But if you push him enough, he might admit guilt.

After all, it is that kind of innovative, bottom-line-oriented thinking and zealous advocacy that clients relish, and Mr. Burg and Ms. Gordon encourage such at Media Edge.

Innovative thinking helped Media Edge win nine of 10 pitches last year, amounting to some $700 million in new billings. New business came from Campbell Soup Co., Glaxo Wellcome, Kraft Foods and Chanel. Total 1999 U.S. billings for Media Edge spiked 34.5% over the last two years to $3.9 billion.

The agency even made a move to stay ahead of the technology curve by launching Digital Edge, which specializes in planning and buying in interactive media.

TOP HONOR

All of Media Edge's accomplishments were taken into consideration when it was named Advertising Age's 1999 Media Agency of the Year.

At Media Edge, it's clear the leadership team of Mr. Burg, Ms. Gordon and Bob Igiel, president of broadcast operations, have created a culture where out-of-the-box ideas and passion for helping clients is pervasive.

"We'd all stand in front of a bus for AT&T," Ms. Gordon says about one of the agency's flagship clients.

More likely, they would place AT&T Corp. on a bus in a target market. Or do what Mr. Igiel did last summer: give AT&T a prime spot on the hottest show in TV.

It was Mr. Igiel who worked with ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" to invent the so-called AT&T lifeline, where stumped guests can phone a chosen friend for help. There's nothing like Regis Philbin to grow a brand.

SMART LIFELINE

Besides its various sponsorship roles involving the show, AT&T partly benefits from prospective participants calling the show to answer automated trial questions in the hopes of appearing on the show.

The "Millionaire" lifeline is just one subtle media placement dreamed up by the agency. Others include: Host Conan O'Brien seen drinking 7UP on his late-night talk show; actress Neve Campbell wrapping her hand around a Dr Pepper on "Party of Five;" The Wall Street Journal running a weather map partly as an ad vehicle for the United Airlines-led Star Alliance.

"Buying is not enough," Mr. Igiel says. "It's about targeting. It's about using all facets of media to build business."

But it is not just the blue-chip advertising clients such as AT&T, Dr Pepper/7UP, and United Airlines that inspire Media Edge's 700 North American employees.

It is also smaller clients like Helzberg Diamonds, a division of Berkshire Hathaway with a media budget of only about $10 million that inspires them.

The agency's "unique selling point is the extremely strong work ethic, which I see as a distinct influence of both Beth Gordon and Mitch Burg," says John Goodman, Helzberg's VP-marketing and advertising.

PIZZA PARTY

Last year started out in party-fashion for Media Edge as it made Pizza Hut the sponsor of the Super Bowl pre-game show, figuring people order out just before kick-off. The party really didn't stop as the agency went on its new business tear.

Besides Campbell's, Glaxo Wellcome, Kraft and Chanel, the agency won new assignments from Dannon Co., Pella Windows and Combe, which turned to Media Edge to serve as its first-ever outside media adviser.

SPECIAL PLAY DATES

Along the way, the agency persuaded Parenting to publish an additional issue, a first for the 10-times a year publication, to serve as an ad vehicle for client Fisher-Price. The deal called for special "play dates" at Toys "R" Us, promoted in the magazine, designed to give Fisher-Price a sales kick.

Media Edge persuaded NBC to televise a professional ice-skating event called "Star Skates on Ice" aboard client Royal Caribbean Cruise Line's Voyager of the Seas. The broadcast featured shots of the interior and exterior of the 3,100-passenger ocean liner.

To take advantage of the sea change shift to the Web, the agency launched Digital Edge, which helped it win clients such as Wine.com.

Besides its focus on interactive planning and buying, Digital Edge aims to keep clients abreast of cutting edge opportunities such as interactive TV, and provide them with constanstly updated databases and research tools.

"We really rely on them not just for planning and buying expertise, but also their research," says Bette Blum, senior manager of media services for Alamo Rent-A-Car.

Last year, the agency also had several retentions, most notably assignments from Xerox Corp. and Royal Caribbean, not to mention, Ms. Gordon.

The media community was abuzz with rumors last summer that Ms. Gordon might be ready to call it a career. But Ms. Gordon says she simply wanted a few months to trade reach and frequency for rest and fun. She spent the summer traveling and relaxing with her husband, a schoolteacher.

"I turned 50," she says. "I thought the best birthday present I could give myself was time."

She came back in September in time to see Mr. Burg turn 45. He says her return was the best present he could get.

Mr. Burg and Ms. Gordon have worked together for 22 years, starting at N.W. Ayer & Partners when client AT&T was a monopoly, and "Reach out and touch someone" was the marketing angle.

In 1994, the pair and six others broke from Ayer to form Media Edge. It remained independent until 1996 when it was sold to Young & Rubicam. A year later, Y&R's media operations merged with Media Edge to form the holding company's media arm. In 1998, Y&R held an initial public offering, making the agency part of a public company.

Many of the people who have worked with Ms. Gordon and Mr. Burg since Ayer remain at Media Edge, giving the agency veteran leadership throughout the ranks.

"There's a great camaraderie here," Mr. Burg says. "We have a really senior staff who have relationships at the senior level, which is where deals get done."

Still, the agency strives to foster a horizontal environment where good ideas are valued.

OVER THE EDGE AWARDS

The agency has turned a hallway off its lobby into a wall of fame where notable media plans and placements are posted. It also gives out "Over the Edge" awards to employees who go the extra mile.

A recent winner was Jennifer Wallach, a researcher who became a pundit on the teen-age demographic group. The research was conducted for a specific client, but was deemed so insightful that Media Edge has passed it along to others.

On a recent afternoon, visitors emerging from the elevator at Media Edge's Seventh Avenue offices were greeted by a display of a pop-out ad the agency had placed in People for Kraft's General Foods International Coffee.

Client influence in the office is distinct. Vending machines are heavy on products from Pepperidge Farm, part of Campbell Soup; Fort James Corp.'s Dixie cups are used; and Coke cans are scorned as employees are encouraged to sip 7UP and Dr Pepper.

Both Ms. Gordon and Mr. Burg are optimistic that 2000 will be as successful as last year for the agency. Possible trouble spots include reviews for the U.S. Postal Service and U.S. Army accounts.

But Mr. Burg says reviews are often a good opportunity to toot one's own horn. The rest of the time the agency thinks of ways to toot its clients' horns.

Copyright March 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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