Nancy Smith

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American Express Co. is looking to original content with a cook, a cartoon character and a comedian to help attract and retain savvy, big bucks spenders. The financial services company is seeing record results.

AmEx has become an increasing fan of experiential marketing and original content-whether with free concerts, Webisodes (Internet-based short programs) with Superman and comedian Jerry Seinfeld or reality shows to spotlight Open, its card dedicated to small businesses.

Overseeing much of the activity and a team of 50 internal and agency staff is Nancy Smith, VP-global media and sponsorship marketing.

Original content lets marketers plan their own schedules rather than being held hostage to existing events. One of American Express' first was the 1999 Sheryl Crow concert that helped launch the new credit card Blue and was broadcast on Fox, the Internet and the radio.

"It was one of the scariest things we've ever done. It was huge and tremendous on breakthrough. It helped get Blue off the ground," says Ms. Smith, 54, who is responsible for global media and sponsorships. "It started to give us great heart that original content was a very powerful tool."

Last year, the company launched a program to help reopen the Statue of Liberty, which closed after 9/11, and it commissioned director Martin Scorsese for a documentary. It looked to branded content such as the Superman-Seinfeld shorts, where consumers initially had to opt in to see the Webisodes in March before they ran on NBC and TBS in the spring.

Even when American Express ties into existing events, like Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, it puts its own stamp on it, says Ms. Smith, who has overseen sponsorship marketing since `97. With its 11th U.S. Open this year, AmEx had a giant viewing screen showing the match at Rockefeller Plaza, its second year there. The stunt was similar to its first efforts for Wimbledon this summer, when Ms. Smith and her team installed the large screen at Tower Bridge to show the matches, sponsored a free Alicia Keys concern, and floated a barge down the Thames with Monica Seles and John McEnroe battling it out.

Today's media environment is both challenging and advantageous for marketers-challenging, in that it allows consumers to easily opt out of advertising with digital video recorders, advantageous because it allows marketers myriad new ways to grab disaffected consumers. Ms. Smith says AmEx sponsored NBC's "The Restaurant," with celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, which led to a 60% increase in prospect breakthrough.

In the second quarter of this year, AmEx reported record net income of $876 million, up 15% from last year, and record revenue of $7.3 billion, up 14%. The company says the results were due to record spending on the cards and more travel sales.

contributing: Mercedes M. Cardona

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