Agency Profile: Semaphore Partners

The online industry is built on the foundation of innovation - make it new, different, faster, and better. In contrast, the advertising industry predominately relies on the tried and true - the thirty-second commercial, the placing of ads during the daytime to reach Moms, and the use of bikini-clad models to sell beer. However, one agency is trying to be different by marrying the concept of innovation and advertising.

Semaphore Partners, a wholly owned division of Publicis Groupe SA, is an interactive services firm whose focus is innovation. Whether it is customer-focused websites, intranets and extranets, or interactive media and marketing programs, Semaphore Partners leverages emerging technologies and new approaches to create distinctive experiences that connect with consumers.

Rebranded in May 2002 as Semaphore Partners, the agency is the offshoot of early Internet pioneer agencies Novo/Giant Step and Blue Marble. Since its establishment, Semaphore Partners has had steady growth, and is projecting to reach $25 million in billings by the end of 2003. The 150-person agency, headquartered in San Francisco, has offices in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. The New York office, for example, is representative of the agency's commitment to marrying advertising and technology. Within its 60 employees, 25 are involved in media/strategy and 25 are responsible for engineering/creative.

"Our focus is innovation," says Bryan Russiano, Semaphore Partners' vice president/managing director, New York. "We innovate, not just to say we are doing the latest, sexiest thing, but to allow our clients to stand out and deliver on its business objectives." Russiano cites a recent example how technology and marketing savvy can increase brand awareness. "Our client, Behr Paints wanted to communicate to consumers that they shouldn't fear choosing the wrong paint color. We took a non-traditional approach by creating and placing interactive kiosks in Home Depot, one of Behr's largest retailers. The kiosks, which used state-of-art technology developed by Laszlo Systems, allowed consumers to scan in their personal color samples or fabrics, and allowed the computer to show what the corresponding paint would look like on the wall. They could dial up the color to see what different versions would like. We then created a website for Behr that provides a similar user experience."

Russiano has been solving client's needs for some time. In his current position, Russiano oversees all client relationships and operations for the company's New York office, and is responsible for the client service, engineering, project management, and creative services departments. He is also responsible for managing the research, marketing, and media disciplines that drive brand insights and deliver on ROI objectives for Semaphore Partners' clients. Before joining Semaphore Partners in 2000, Russiano was an associate director at the New York office of Ammirati Puris Lintas. In this position, he developed digital programs for clients such as Dell Computer, UPS, LEGO, and RCA, as well as a combination of online and offline media strategies for a variety of Unilever brands.

"My Ammirati experience was very beneficial in that I developed this drive to uncover as many nuggets of information as I could find," says Russiano. "In the days of the 300-page MRI runs, I would sit with a yellow highlighter and look for an 'A-ha!' in the primary and secondary research. To catch that little bit of unexpected data by surprise, and ultimately delivery it to a client is cool."

Although not elbow deep in media runs anymore, Russiano is active in the agency's media direction. "Online media is truly different from traditional media," says Russiano. "Whereas in traditional media, 75 percent of the work is planning/buying and 25 percent is analyses. In online media, it is the reverse. Most of the work with online media is post-planning/buying. It is after the plan is actually implemented that we act on the insights that the results display. It is a continual test and learn process. Online media provides a potentially large information repository, and while people understand this, most do not act on what they find."

A smart use of online advertising was the media plan campaign and website that Semaphore Partners developed for long-time client, Continental Airlines. The airline had a two-fold challenge: increase revenue at its website and acquire new customers. To optimize for a superior, travel-related user experience the website required revised architecture and navigation. Semaphore Partners created an intuitive site flow to make it easier for all visitors to quickly navigate the site, check fares, flight availability, and flight status, purchase tickets, reference Continental's OnePass frequent flyer account information, and book reward travel online.

Further, to acquire customers effectively and to convert visitors into buyers at a lower cost that any other channel, the online media campaign focused on direct response marketing and aggressive optimization. The buy encapsulated a broad range of properties, incorporating cutting-edge targeted technologies that allowed the agency to understand where, when, and at what cost to employ messaging.

The results were impressive. In June, according to a NPD Group survey profiling airline websites, the redesigned site was rated the highest overall by its visitors, outranking all other airlines in the study. Accolades are nice, but more important to Continental, the site set a monthly record in May for ticket sales with $102 million - 90 percent more than was sold in May of 2002.

Semaphore Partners clients include Behr, Continental Airlines, General Mills, Kraft, LeapFrog, McKesson, Orbitz, Phillip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Nestle Purina PetCare, Schering-Plough, Sears, and the Screen Actors Guild. The agency's services include creative concepting, visual and information design, rich media development, experience planning and usability testing, program management, quantitative and qualitative research, iMedia planning and buying, iMarketing strategy and development, data collection and analysis, and technical architecture and development.

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