Agency Profile: Mass Transit Interactive
After years of prosperity, Mass Transit Interactive, like many small New York City based online advertising agencies, was finding it hard to survive and grow in a tough advertising economy. So cofounders Jason Heller and Jason Burnham decided to get back to their direct marketing roots and reposition the company.
Today, Mass Transit is positioned as a “Brand Response” interactive marketing firm that focuses mainly on media planning, buying, and management, but with a third of its business now engaged in email management and eCRM. “What the Internet and email do best is offer marketers continuous communication ‘touch points,’ from the initial ad exposure, through customer and data acquisition, and retention and up-sell,’ said Jason Heller, CEO of Mass Transit. “Our business is now set up so we can provide our clients this complete set of services.”
It’s the power of the Internet as a marketing medium that got Heller and his partner Jason Burnham, president and media director of Mass Transit, into the online business in the first place. “Jason and I met about 10 years ago when we were both in the music and recording industry,” recounted Burnham. “At one point we owned four independent record labels specializing in hip hop and urban music. But in 1996 we began to see the potential of the Internet to sell records and promote artists and knew this was where we had to be.”
After stints in a few direct marketing firms and with their experiences with guerrilla and viral marketing from their music industry days, Heller and Burnham launched Mass Transit in 1998. Their first client was Doubleday Book Clubs, a natural for them because of their direct marketing background. Big brands (and their agencies) such as Hertz, DoubleClick, Citibank, Fodor’s, Altavista, and The Plaza Hotel quickly came aboard. They were riding high in 2000 when Heller and Burnham were among a small handful of online media professionals to receive the “Best and Brightest Media Strategists” award from BtoB Magazine.
Then like almost every other company in the marketplace, they felt the effects of the downturn in the economy. Mass Transit, which has reduced its staff to just shy of 10 people, will have $20 million in billings in 2001, down from a high of $40 million in 2000.
Despite the dip in the business, Mass Transit remains a solid company because of the strong working partnerships established over the years with traditional advertising agencies, online agencies, and media buying shops that supply them many of their clients. They currently provide interactive marketing services for DiMassimo Brand Advertising and The Plaza Hotel account; Sharpe Partners and the Fuji Film account; Corinthian Media and the Union Pacific account; and MARC USA and the Prime Retail account. Among Mass Transit’s other partners are Hanft Byrne Raboy and Partners, Digital Pulp, DiNoto Lee, ID Society, and e.magination.
“We don’t view our partners as outsourcing their online work to us,” said Heller. “We are really their ‘insource’ partner. In some cases, we have our own desks at these companies so we can work more closely together. It’s so important to be fully integrated, to be an extension.”
One of the services that keep their partners and clients coming back is creative, strategic thinking. “We are always suggesting new ad formats to our clients,” stated Heller. “For instance, we were one of the first agencies to buy a skyscraper ad. We try to find that one element that has the greatest novelty factor to develop a campaign around. By novelty, we don’t just mean new or different. It first has to work and then be innovative enough that viewers do not become desensitized to it as an ad format.”
“The next big novelty factor idea is DHTML-based rich media,” continued Heller. “However, until the pipes get bigger, and traditional advertisers commit the budgets to move it forward, it will not happen on a large scale.”
While thinking up the next big novel idea is fun, Heller and Burnham understand that taking care of the nuts and bolts of online media buying and management is what their clients expect from them. “From all the hundreds of campaigns we’ve executed and managed, we created a media database that contains contact information, demographics, historical performance, and historical cost structures on over 3,000 sites and networks,” said Burnham. “With this system we can quickly do the research needed to effectively execute and optimize a buy. And because of our direct marketing backgrounds, we were optimizing online buys before it even became an industry buzzword.”
Mass Transit works directly with a few clients, such as Playboy’s Internet Gaming Division and Rewards for Justice Fund.org. Rewards for Justice Fund, in particular, is an account both Heller and Burnham are extremely proud to work on. This nonprofit organization was created with an endorsement of Congress and the U.S. Department of State as an innovative international program to combat terrorism by providing up to $5 million for information leading to the capture of individuals planning terrorist acts against the United States.
Every dollar raised by the Rewards for Justice Fund is given to the U.S. State Department’s Rewards For Justice Fund program, solely to help apprehend terrorists and bring them to justice. In fact, it was this program, which rewarded individuals for information, that lead to arrest of one of the bombers of the World Trade Center in 1993.
“This is an important issue to all of us,” said Heller. “We are only 30 blocks away from Ground Zero and we literally smell the fires still burning everyday.” Burnham added that their buys have received “unprecedented support from media outlets for the campaign.”
MediaPost VP of Operations Adam Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.