Special Report: Vicki Szombathy

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When Chicago-based SMG Inc. wanted to create a business unitto be dubbed StarLink Worldwidethat would work with midsize agencies, the company mined the local talent base for top media-savvy advertising executives. At the time, Vicki Szombathy was senior VP-media director at The Nahser Agency in Chicago, and responsible for the CNA Business Insurance, the agencys key client. "[Moving to StarLink] was a natural fit" because Nahser is a midsize agency, too, said Szombathy, who signed on as StarLinks VP-media director in 1999.

It was the success she had with the CNA accountand her experiences at large agencies DArcy Masius Benton & Bowles and DDB Needham Worldwide Inc.that she believes helped prepare her for the challenges of working for the start-up StarLink. As a media strategist, Szombathy thrives on challenge and often challenges her clients.

For instance, when CNA celebrated its centennial anniversary, the insurer was still limiting its advertising message to vertical titles. Szombathy helped motivate the client to branch out into such mainstream vehicles as CBS Radio with Charles Osgood, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC and major business titles such as Business Week. Each media buy included messaging designed to support CNAs internal sales force and its independent agents and brokers.

The bets have certainly paid off. After seeing the returns from the campaign, CNA tripled its ad spending, according to Szombathy.

Her strategy of persuading clients to have a broader vision takes on added resonance in the current economic climate. "You need to talk to the C-level as well as people in the trenches," she said. "You have to maintain the message so it has top-of-mind awareness among [business] decision-makers."

Szombathy brings the same strategy to her current accounts at StarLink, such as Heidelberg USA Inc., Vignette Corp. and Interland Inc. For example, Interland recently merged with HostPro Inc. and Szombathy is busy crafting a media plan that pushes the merged brand beyond technology titles and toward publications targeting small businesses, including Fortune Small Business and VAR Business.

"Whats critical is that we have a direct development [in every media vehicle] to push sales leads, whether its an 800-number in print or an online promotion," Szombathy said. "We cant say `Lets run in Forbes, Fortune or Business Week. Its got to be much more targeted because every marketing director is now asking, How do I justify my investment?’"

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