BlairLake's message from the heartland

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A briefcase full of money, an interactive clown and some guys wearing curly-toed shoes are all helping propel Kansas City Web developer BlairLake New Media toward national recognition.

The briefcase contained a confidential Web site address where executives from Motley Fool, the popular online investment advisor, found a pitch from BlairLake to redesign the Fool's Web site.


The clown popped from an interactive jack-in-the-box to lead Motley Fool executives through a tour of the proposal.

The shoes were worn by BlairLake execs as they made--and won--their final pitch for the Fool's business late last year.

Such displays of humor, attitude and interactive savvy are helping BlairLake accomplish the unlikely--beating big-name shops from places like New York and San Francisco.

"This is our first national client that is well-known within the interactive community," BlairLake President Steve Revare, 32, said of the Motley Fool account. The company beat out such names as the Interactive Bureau and Poppe Tyson for the business.

BlairLake, located in a city with three nationally known ad agencies billing a combined $500 million annually, has seen its revenue quadruple in the last year and the number of employees shoot up from two to 22.


Clients include Sprint PCS (Sprint's digital communication s division), the Western Auto chain of auto parts retailers and Western Resources, an aggressive energy and home security company.

"Most ad agencies have found that adding an interactive function in-house is like adding a television studio--it just doesn't make sense. We can be as visible or invisible as the agency or the client wants us to be," said BlairLake Chairman David Epstein.

Several local ad agencies, venture capitalists, business brokers and other new-media developers have approached Mr. Epstein about buying or investing in BlairLake, especially in the last six months. Messrs. Epstein and Revare say they aren't selling.

"We want to be nimble," Mr. Epstein said. "This business is changing too rapidly. The Internet is hot now, but tomorrow it might be some other form of interactive media. We want to have the ability to make decisions and act immediately."

Mr. Revare has an English degree and worked in the promotion department of the local ABC-TV affiliate before joining childhood friend Mr. Epstein to form BlairLake in January 1995.


Mr. Epstein, 31, failed in his 1994 bid to join the Kansas House of Representatives and was working as a real estate attorney in his father's practice in suburban Kansas City.

The two formed BlairLake (a combination of their middle names) as a traditional advertising agency, but a speech by a top Apple Computer executive about the Web changed their direction.

"The market for traditional ad agencies is saturated. Look in the Kansas City phone book and there are probably 150 ad agencies, most of whom have longstanding clients who aren't looking to move their accounts," Mr. Epstein said. "Traditional agencies hold market share."

But focusing on new media did little to qualm their new-venture trepidation.

"For the first six months we lived in constant terror that the sleeping giants would awake and create their own new-media divisions and stamp us out because of their contacts," said Mr. Epstein, referring to Kansas City's big three ad agencies, Bernstein-Rein, Valentine-Radford and Barkley & Evergreen. "They never did."

Then, things changed. While more prominent new-media companies cherry-picked Fortune 500 companies from their headquarters in New York and San Francisco, the market between the coasts was left largely untapped, Mr. Epstein said.

Happy filling the Midwestern void, BlairLake isn't aggressively pitching new business on the coasts.

"Why pick battles in highly competitive markets when there is a lot of opportunity here at home? There are Fortune 500 companies in the Midwest just learning about new media," Mr. Epstein said.

Now, BlairLake is hard at work making sure its site for the Motley Fool lives up to the pitch.

"It's a blast to work with them," said Todd Etter, Web design project manager at Motley Fool. "They're finding creative ways of making it fun to navigate our site. The site will be more interactive than most."


BlairLake's expansion plans call for a series of field offices, including one in St. Louis and potentially Minneapolis and Dallas.

The ultimate goal, Mr. Epstein said, is to create a limited roster of about 25 high-end clients, similar to Minneapolis-based Fallon McElligott's strategy in traditional advertising.

"We want savvy clients committed to creating and utilizing new and interesting vehicles of communication," Mr. Epstein said. "We want lifelong partners who want to use our creativity and technical expertise to develop world class, non-traditional forms of communication. We're not interested in slapping up electronic brochures."

Mr. Epstein said the nature of the Internet will mature as it penetrates society and users become less wide-eyed and more savvy.

"Surfing won't be with us in a year or two because it is the antithesis of what the Web is all about--finding specific information fast. Savvy users know what they want, and they want it now," he said.

Copyright March 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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