TBWA/Chiat/Day's ad crew is enjoying the dot-com ride

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Laurie coots plopped herself down in a chair in Central Park and sighed. "I'm beginning to wonder if they're wrong, and this pace is sustainable," she said.

This wasn't in midtown Manhattan, but in TBWA/Chiat/Day's stunning Playa del Rey, Calif., offices. Central Park is an indoor, tree-dotted square that borders the workspace of Worldwide Chairman-Chief Creative Officer Lee Clow. And Coots, the agency's chief marketing officer and one of the ad world's hottest properties these days, didn't have to explain what she meant.

Everywhere you go on the West Coast, meetings begin with the person across from you sighing and saying something like, "We're getting a dozen dot-com calls a day. It's insane." In this environment, TBWA/Chiat/Day has emerged as one of the hottest dot-com shops in the country. Coots says that between March 1999 and last week, the agency met with 214 potential dot-com clients. During that time frame, it picked up more than a dozen of those accounts with total billings of about $300 million.

Among those that signed on: Homestore.com; Pets.com; Weather.com; eYada.com; OnHealth.com; Onvia; Bizrate.com; ifilm; Dunk.net; and a new company formed by an alliance of major airlines.

Talk to anyone at Chiat (TBWA is the global brand, but in L.A. locals just call it Chiat) about the agency's dot-com philosophy and it's not hard to see why the shop has had so much success. Many agencies have mixed feelings about the dot-com phenomenon. They love the money, but despise the rapid-fire demands and skewed business practices of Internet start-ups.

Dot-coms are eyed suspiciously. They don't spend what they say they will. Their turnaround time is too fast. They don't pay their bills -- or may drop off the face of the Earth tomorrow -- so cash must be secured up front. They don't know the difference between making noise and building brands.

There's no such hand-wringing going on at Chiat. To minimize risk, the agency rigorously scrutinizes all potential dot-com clients. Coots compares the process to the same one venture capitalists go through before they invest in a start-up.

"The first thing we ask is what is the total business opportunity, what is the market, who are the competitors," she says. "The next thing we look at is key management. Then we ask, do they recognize advertising as a key part of their brand mix. It has to be so strategic with a start-up company because it shapes the image of the company not only in the eyes of the market but in the eyes of the people who are going to work there. They build a corporate culture through communications."

Finally, she says, "We look at who is their VC and who's going to take them public if they're pre-IPO. What company they're keeping says a lot about whether they will be viable."

Once it has signed a dot-com, Chiat/Day revels in the quick pace other agencies moan about. "Our strength is we aren't big fans of the slow build. We do the kind of advertising that gets noticed, gets talked about and becomes part of popular culture," Coots says.

If there's a universal complaint in the ad business, it's that Internet advertisers are more interested in awareness (and its IPO impact) than long-term brand-building. Even on this front, Coots is a contrarian. "Sometimes the object of the game is to stay alive long enough to play," she says. "At different stages of their business, companies have different business needs. Sometimes it's traffic, sometimes awareness, sometimes they need to squish the competition." Whatever the goal, Chiat's there.

Clow insists the dot-coms are no different than any other client. "Brands, whether traditional or dot-com, a lot of the same mechanics apply," says the man at the heart of Chiat. "How good is the idea, how talented are the people, and with marketing can we get sufficient velocity so people will be interested enough to grab on and have a relationship with the brand?"

"Look, at some point there's going to be a shakeout," Clow continues. "When it comes, hopefully we will have spotted the talented people and good ideas and they'll become real brands."

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