Unicast casts its spell

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Is Unicast the online ad company that only a traditional advertiser could love?

If so, it looks like a good position to have. The privately held Internet ad company raises the question of whether it is savvy marketing or technology that counts more when it comes to getting skittish marketers to put money into online advertising. The company, which markets an advertising unit, the Superstitial, that has TV-like qualities, has smartly branded the format as the Internet's Commercial. A gaggle of blue-chip advertisers has signed on to the surprisingly old-fashioned vision.

A press release issued last July demonstrates that sometimes it's difficult to separate reality from hype. It imparts that Allied Domecq's Kahlua, DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz, General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac and Saab brands, McDonald's Corp., Seagram Co.'s Absolut Vodka and Volkswagen are among the service's new advertisers. Unicast won't divulge financials but said its revenue rose 16% in the third quarter over second quarter this year, and is up 338% over the third quarter of 2000.

And the company looks as though it's on the verge of a breakthrough in terms of winning over one previously picky major Internet media company: Yahoo! (see related article on this page). The portal, which had once been notorious for its advertising inflexibility, is now running ads for Advil, the pain reliever marketed by American Home Products Corp.'s Whitehall-Robins Healthcare unit. Unicast officials wouldn't comment about their relationship with Yahoo!, and executives at the Sunnyvale, Calif., media company were quick to describe the run of Superstitials as "a very limited test." Still, for a site averse to change, the test is an important one.

Certainly, the technology, or its transparency thereof, is part of the allure. The Superstitial relies mostly on Macromedia's Flash, which has grown to become the authoring software of choice among online creatives. Allowing advertisers to incorporate some of their favorite tools, music and animation, the ads allow for a realistic, if low-tech, proxy for the richness of the television experience, sometimes with intriguing interactivity to boot.

A recent ad for Absolut, for instance, allows users to "peel" the skin off a bottle of Absolut Citron by using the cursor to move a virtual peeler. As rich as the ads can sometimes be, they load in the background while the user is busy doing other online things. "The advertising business just needs for the technology to disappear," said Unicast Chairman-CEO Dick Hopple.

But if Unicast's repurposing of existing technology is one reason for its success, its plan to market itself as the online advertising company that understands advertisers is probably more important. Joseph Jaffe, director of interactive media at Omnicom Group's TBWA/Chiat/Day, puts Unicast's success bluntly. "I think probably one of the reasons [for it] is Dick Hopple," he said. "He's an advertising man, and he understands the advertising business." As such, Mr. Hopple has stood firm in his belief that online advertising has to be made easier for advertisers. In Unicast's case, that means selling Superstitials as a unit as standardized as a TV commercial: 20 seconds long max, with no more than a 100k file size.

Indeed, Mr. Hopple, who held top positions at D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles and defunct Wells Rich Greene, wears his allegiance with advertisers and marketers proudly. (Bcom3, which now owns D'Arcy, is one of its investors.) "[The Internet industry] has not been able to come to grips with advertisers' need for standards," he said. The Unicast focus on selling a standard unit that then can be distributed, just like a TV ad, to a wide array of sites, is the kind of simplicity, Mr. Hopple believes, that will make it easier for mainstream advertisers to embrace the medium.

The ploy seems to have worked with agencies, many of whom have signed up multiple clients for Superstitial campaigns. According to Sheri Kaufman, VP-creative director at Boston i-shop Digitas, "They're very simple to work with. They allow us to maintain creative integrity." The agency, which has created Superstitials for clients including AT&T Corp. and Saab, has also been pleased with the results. "These ads are outperforming most of what's out there," she said.

Comparisons to TV ads and Superstitials are many, and are encouraged aggressively by Unicast itself, which released a Harris Interactive study in June comparing Superstitial performance favorably to that of TV ads.

Critics say Unicast's focus on giving advertisers what they want-TV on the Internet-may not be giving them what they need. "It takes away the thing that marketers really like about the Web, which is to engage the consumer in a sort of give and take," said Forrester Research Senior Analyst Jim Nail.

TBWA's Mr. Jaffe thinks such criticism is misplaced. "It's almost like a false comparison," he said.

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