PORTLAND COMPANY SPINS STYLE INTO TOP SALES

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PORTLAND, Ore.-Infomercial company Tyee moves in swift waters. This area's biggest film and video production company-whose name means "king salmon" or "big fish" in the language of certain Pacific Northwest Native American tribes-is the leading high-end producer in the young infomercial industry.

How can a company in a small, out-of-the-way place like Portland grow as fast as Tyee has and attract national clients? That's a question Tim O'Leary, one of three company principals and president of TV Tyee, hears often.

"We tried to build a little cachet about Portland," he said. "We [think we] get better quality of production here than in Los Angeles .*.*. It's frustrating to have clients who want to go to L.A. It is not better, it just costs more."

The Portland base hasn't snagged Tyee's growth, with estimated 1995 revenues of $20 million, nearly triple 1993's $7.7 million.

TV Tyee is the company division that acts as a quasi-agency for direct response TV, doing research, feasibility studies, focus groups and creative. The other two company principals are John Ripper, a founder and president of Tyee Productions, the branch that handles production; and Roger Thompson, a Tyee founder and director.

It's not by accident that Portland has become a favorite swimming hole for the Hollywood set and the home of some big names at advertising agencies and marketers. Filmmaker Gus Van Sant, Will Vinton Studios, Wieden & Kennedy and Nike have worked with Tyee to raise the profile of the city through the Portland Creative Conference, held each fall.

During the conference, leading writers, directors and designers from both coasts come to Portland to hustle new talent, mingle with local producers, and see for themselves the caliber of the city's creative community.

High quality and sultry atmosphere are the hallmarks of many of Portland's creative products, including some of Tyee's award-winning storymercials.

"Gravity Edge" for fitness equipment marketer SLM in 1993 featured a real motorcross race and taut sexual tension between a female personal trainer and her client, Jack, a race competitor.

Such storymercials, which offer a storyline more akin to a TV show than a commercial, have become a prominent part of Tyee's portfolio.

"The Great Wall," for Philips Consumer Electronics' compact disc-interactive player, was another big award winner and one of the first infomercials shown on prime time. This 1993 effort helped drive retail sales by educating viewers, so retailers' demonstration times shrank from 45 to 5 minutes. It was a precursor to Tyee's highly successful infomercial for Apple Computer's Performa PC, "The Martinellis Bring Home a Computer."

"We're unique," Mr. Ripper said. "Most producers are marketing companies that buy the rights to a product, then they market the product. We are not that. We work more like an agency would work. That was a conscious choice."

Rather than reaping revenues from sales of the product, Tyee works on a commission basis.

Marketers who have turned to Tyee include such high profile companies as Avon Products, Revlon, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Weight Watchers International.

Those marketers have picked an infomercial producer that has topped the industry rankings for products sold and creative concepts since it was founded in 1988.

One reason for this is "the Tyee look," from its characteristic use of film rather than video and the company's insistence on movie quality production standards.

The first project out of the gate was an infomercial entitled "Heroes" for Soloflex, a one-product company that had moved to Oregon just a few years earlier.

Sales of Soloflex fitness equipment skyrocketed after the infomercial broke in 1988.

Now Tyee is working to manage the changes in the industry and ride the growth wave to new heights.

"We're always looking for new formats," Mr. Ripper said. "That's how we developed storymercials. Our big challenge is being selective about what we will do and won't do."

Besides direct response advertising, Tyee creates infomercials aimed at generating sales leads and others to create an image for a company. Those types of advertising help the buyer understand the product, so it is especially good for high tech items. The value of the infomercial is that it is what Mr. O'Leary terms "accountable advertising" since sales can be tracked directly to the infomercial.

Inside Tyee's corporate offices in downtown Portland's funky Victorian arts district, an enormous display captures the company's Northwest mystique and style.

A huge salmon, once part of an outdoor board in Los Angeles, is fastened to a reception area wall. The fish looks as if it is bursting out of a spray of whitewater. Riding on the big fish is a dedicated cameraman with a movie camera and an assistant steadying the cameraman on the slippery back of the leaping fish. Tyee is on that ride, looking for new territory.

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CORPORATE CLOSE-UP

Headquarters: Portland

Sales: Estimated $20 million in 1995. Not publically traded.

Leadership: Tim O'Leary, president, TV Tyee; John Ripper, founder

and president of Tyee Productions; Roger Thompson, founder and director; Paul Waterman, chief financial officer; account

supervisors: Dianne Dewsbury, Jeff Brown, Annemarie Carlson; Saul Caprio, director of new-business development; Doug Garrett, director, TV Tyee research department

Marketing expenditures: About $150,000. Includes public relations by freelance publicist Sandy Serling, Portland, and design work by free-lance designer Judith Quinn, Black Dog Design, Portland; and in-house marketing department.

Recent successes: Creative-Apple Performa computer infomercial "The Martinellis Bring Home a Computer," Philips Consumer Electronics

"The Great Wall" infomercial and spots for the CDi Interactive Player; and "The Gravity Edge" infomercial for SLM for fitness equipment. Sales-Proform Fitness, "Crosswalk" and "Crosstrainer" for fitness equipment.

Challenges: Learning how to deal with rapid growth and increase production while not letting quality and creativity decline.

Solution: structured the company more like a movie studio, with departments for research specially designed for infomercials,

financial analysis and project management; used growing financial strength to attract better talent for infomercials.

Source: Advertising Age and company reports

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