Special Report: Dot-coms' mad rush screeches to a halt

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Dot-coms are still paying top dollar for billboards across the country--especially in wired markets such as New York; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Seattle--but the mad rush to snap up out-of-home ad space is over. "A lot of the dot-coms have pulled way back," says Andrea MacDonald, president-CEO of MacDonald Media, a New York outdoor media buying agency. "They're still fairly active, but there isn't the same frenzy as last year." In 1999, IPO dot-coms plastered their ad messages on billboards, taxis, buses and walls to get their URLs in the public eye. With the IPO rush over and marketing budgets tightening, Ms. MacDonald sees dot-coms taking a harder look at brand strategy and creative before launching a campaign.


"With dot-coms buying outdoor, the herd has been thinned," says Rick Robinson, national creative director at Infinity Broadcasting Corp.'s Infinity Outdoor, Los Angeles. "The major players remaining are buying more [outdoor] in a smarter way. They have become a valid business." Dot-com advertising accounts for a small percentage of outdoor revenue--just $43 million of the $1.2 billion spent on outdoor during the first quarter came from Internet ads, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. But Diane Cimine, exec VP-marketing at the OAAA, says the medium remains a significant growth category for out-of-home. "With outdoor you have the quicker turnaround and the ability to get a lot of exposure quickly," she says. "Really what a lot of dot-coms are doing is saying, `I'm out there.' Out-of-home becomes sort of a teaser for their business." Kristi Argyilan, director of media services, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, calls outdoor a "sweetheart medium" with a variety of ad opportunities including ads covering building walls, taxi tops and new ideas like car and building wraps.


Goodby has had great success with outdoor for clients such as E-Trade Group. E-Trade will be down in spending overall this year by about 30%, reflecting the move in its life cycle from launch spending to brand maintenance ranges. The online broker ranked seventh among top dot-com outdoor spenders in the first quarter with $459,000 going toward the medium. Top dot-com advertisers in the Pacific Northwest with the Ackerly Group's outdoor company AK Media so far this year have included employment sites Monster.com and ComputerJobs.com, ranked by Competitive Media Reporting as two of the top spending Net brands using outdoor in the first quarter. Monster.com spent $958,000 on outdoor during the first quarter on the recruiting site's initial outdoor advertising effort. ComputerJobs.-com is handled by Gleason Calise, Dallas; Monster.com is reviewing its $75 million to $90 million U.S. ad account, which has been at Mullen, Wenham, Mass.


"The medium is having a tremendous year," says Stacey Chellis, VP-general sales manager at AK Media, Seattle. "But we are seeing some volatility with dot-com advertisers--people coming to market and then canceling commitments. At the beginning of the year, the dot-coms were much more optimistic than they are currently." Like Monster.com, a handful of dot-com brands with top outdoor spending in the first quarter were new to the medium. Not all of the businesses were newly minted companies, though. Newcomers included the Weather Channel Online, Staples.com and OfficeMax.-com. Even with clients carefully tracking their marketing pennies, Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/ Verdi, New York, takes advantage of outdoor and radio with his marketing plans. "They are all being a little more careful about their media spend," Mr. Verdi says. "That pendulum is swinging to its extreme right now where the sensitivity to spending is to the point where the question is, `How low can you spend per acquired customer.' The pendulum is almost swinging too far over, and what's going to be cut back is the sensibility that this is a brand." DeVito/Verdi's recently launch-ed campaign for TheStreet.com blankets New York with humorous transit ads promoting the financial information site.


For clients interested in targeting the New York market, Mr. Verdi sees outdoor as a must-have. "You can't appeal to New York without having a certain percentage of a budget in outdoor," he says. "It's required because of the density of the market." Last year the agency created an outdoor campaign for online textbook seller eCampus.com that consisted of photocopied sheets of paper taped to phone poles, message walls and stuck into windshields on and near college campuses with messages such as "Our checkout line moves at 56K." The flyers were then photographed and turned into outdoor posters. Dot-coms' struggle to find original marketing venues and messages has helped inspire creativity in outdoor ads, whether it's finding a new place to advertise such as stickers on bananas or sand imprints on the beach, or coming up with award-winning ad copy. Transit ads for CareerBuilder.-com from the Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., won Best of Show at the OAAA's Obie awards in June with an ad-wrapped bus in New York with the words "Don't jump" visible from office buildings.


More than 10 dot-com outdoor campaigns including Art.com, eToys, E-Trade and Yahoo! were finalists for the outdoor awards. Mr. Robinson, an Obie judge for the past two years, credits the "swashbuckling" attitude of new dot-coms willing to try a new type of advertising with helping to drive better creative work within outdoor advertising on the whole. "About 18 months ago, other marketers and advertisers who regularly use outdoor started looking at the risky creative [dot-coms] were using, and everybody wanted to get in on that action," he says. "Dot-com has done to outdoor advertising in a similar fashion what it's done to the entire planet. We're not the only ones hitching a ride."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo.1

Copyright August 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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