Digex wages Shaq attack

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For most of his career, National Basketball Association center Shaquille O'Neal threw up so many bricks from the free-throw line, his b-to-b endorsement opportunities seemed limited to industrial tuck-pointing outfits.

Yet b-to-b marketer Digex Inc., Beltsville, Md., debuted a $7 million campaign featuring the Los Angeles Lakers' O'Neal in the May 23 issue of The Wall Street Journal. Positioning itself as the premiere Web-hosting provider, the company pictured O'Neal in its ads accompanied by the headline, "Pick the dominant force. Digex."

Using a celebrity always has been a questionable strategy in b-to-b advertising, and the use of O'Neal, who until winning the NBA's most valuable player award this season was seen as an underachiever, is especially risky, some marketing experts said.

"He's not a clean-cut, all-American, smooth-talking spokesperson like Michael Jordan," said Al Ries, chairman of marketing firm Ries & Ries, citing the former Chicago Bulls star who did some b-to-b pitching for WorldCom, now MCIWorldCom.

But lately O'Neal's star has risen, and there have been indications that his prowess on the boards might translate to influence in the boardroom. On a recent NBA telecast, for instance, announcer Bob Costas gushed about O'Neal, "When he flashes that megawatt smile, he's an irresistible guy."

Sports marketing consultant Dean Bonham, chairman-CEO of the Bonham Group, said O'Neal could make a credible b-to-b pitchman. "There was an image that he couldn't get the job done," Bonham said, "that he couldn't control his temper, that he couldn't harness his abilities, that he couldn't shoot free throws.

But this year he has turned a corner in such a way that he will be a value to major players in corporate America, where he wouldn't have been a year or two ago."

Cheryl Gustitus, Digex's director of marketing, said the company is comfortable with O'Neal. "There is always a risk with a celebrity kind of thing, but we feel we calculated it pretty well," she said.

Diana Salter, president-CEO of the Benchmark Group, the ad agency behind the Digex campaign, said the 7-foot-2-inch O'Neal provided the perfect image for her client. "We're not using Shaquille as a traditional spokesperson," she said. "He's not saying, `Hey, I'm Shaquille O'Neal. I use Digex, and you should, too.' We're really using Shaquille for what he represents."

What Digex believes O'Neal represents is dominance, a characteristic it says it has in the Web-hosting field.

"They're not blowing smoke," said Lew Hollerbach, senior analyst with the Aberdeen Group, who sees Digex as well-positioned against its Web-hosting competitors such as Exodus Communications Inc.

Prominent customers

The O'Neal effort replaces a campaign that trumpeted Digex's relationship with such prominent corporate customers as Arthur Andersen and W.W. Grainger. That campaign worked well in reaching investment analysts, Gustitus said. The Shaq campaign targets top management and information technology directors.

Ries, however, said the O'Neal ads will miss the target. "You attract attention of people who are interested in basketball whether or not these people are good prospects for your business," he said.

Digex saw its revenues swell to $59.8 million last year, but like most Internet companies, its loss also widened, to $65 million. The company is placing a big bet on the big man.

O'Neal, who has made significant donations to help Boys and Girls Clubs get "wired," is placing a bet on Digex, too. In addition to the unspecified amount of cash he received in compensation from Digex, he also received shares in the company.

It remains to be seen how Shaq the investor will evaluate Shaq the pitchman.

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