- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

Robert L. Whittle understands how differently the technology and advertising industries work.
The president and chief executive officer of Alexandria-based Williams Whittle Associates also knows his traditional full-service ad agency isn't equipped to handle the speed with which technology companies are changing and trying to position themselves in the market.
As a result, Williams Whittle has reinvented itself and started a spinoff company called Ignition. The new agency will focus on fast-paced, technology-driven accounts.
Question: How are technology and dot-com companies affecting the advertising industry and your agency in particular?
Answer: Williams Whittle has had its share of dot-com accounts, whether they were project accounts or full-service accounts. We learned a couple of things. The biggest thing we learned is about the speed [of the industry]. We learned that traditional agencies have a tough time delivering. We're not structured to deliver that kind of speed.
So we decided our approach would be to create this Ignition company. It's a different company with an agency behind it. It's structured for speed.
Q: Compare the speed of dot-com companies to the speed in which a campaign is created for a traditional account.
A: With dot-com companies, often there's a race to get to market with whatever new idea they have. Traditional cycles of new products out there typically used to be years. Now we're talking about months and sometimes talking about weeks for the dot-coms to develop [new products]. Sometimes, by the time it hits an agency, you're talking about days.
Q: When did you start to see these kinds of companies interested in advertising?
A: Years ago, really. As soon as the Internet started to be anything of a factor, we started to see it coming.
Q: We've been inundated with dot-com commercials, particularly during the Super Bowl. What are these companies trying to achieve? Are they just trying to get their name out there?
A: The time from the Super Bowl and today is very, very different, even though it's only been six months. In Internet years, that is a long time ago. So whatever happened at the Super Bowl some of the excesses that's really ancient history for dot-coms. A lot of people learned lessons. It's not about throwing the money around anymore and getting your name out just for the sake of getting your name out as much as it was. Venture capitalists and investors are looking for more solid business plans than that.
The speed is still there, though. There's still an advantage to be first to market. There's still an advantage to have the smartest marketing and the smartest positioning. But it might not be such an advantage anymore to be the one who spends the most money on it.
Q: Do the technology companies realize this or do they still just want to spend instead of advertising wisely?
A: Dot-coms realize it because their investors are telling them so. And the marketplace is telling them that. You spent $5 million at the Super Bowl on an attention-grabbing ad and it didn't translate into profits down the road like you maybe thought it would.
That's not the game. The game is who's got the smartest product? Who's got the smartest positioning? Who can tell the story the best and resonate with their target audience?
Q: Was it more of a challenge for Williams Whittle to execute the right campaigns for the technology-driven companies as opposed to traditional accounts the agency has, like Honda?
A: I don't think so. It's a different language, yes. You've got to learn the language. And it's a different speed, so going faster may make it more difficult. But in terms of coming up with a positioning and creative strategy for Honda that's not easy either.
Q: Do you think more agencies are going to have to have a section of their company or a spinoff solely dedicated to emerging technology business?
A: I think so. You can't fool the dot-coms with it. If it's a couple of guys doing Web sites in the back room, they'll sniff that out and they'll say, 'You're just another agency trying to get my business.' That happens sometimes.
I think you have to be genuine about it if you're interested in going after that kind of business. Our approach, our thesis is, you have to have dedicated people to dot-com and technology because it's not just another category of accounts. The Internet is not just another channel of communication. It is revolutionary and different enough to have specialists.
Q: During the Super Bowl next year, do you think we'll see more dot-coms doing different things or less of them advertising?
A: I think you'll see fewer start-up dot-coms and more established dot-coms on the Super Bowl. The established ones can afford to be branding like Pepsi and Coke because they're mature enough and they have their networks and structures figured out.
I don't think you'll see it as a vehicle to introduce a new dot-com like you did this year. It's almost become a symbol of sort of a waste of money.
But then again, that's six months away. Who knows?


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