Commentary

Earthquake: Shaking Up the Advertising Landscape

Founded in 1999, New York CityÐbased Earthquake Media has successfully weathered both the dot-com collapse and the subsequent era of consolidation, remaining intact as a small (15 staffers), aggressive, independent, and Ñ toughest of all Ñ growing agency. While many of its competitors have been stuck in neutral, Earthquake has seen its billings more than double in the past two years, to about $20 million.

Over the past two years Earthquake's account base has evolved as well, from such first-wave dot-commers as iSalvage, date.com, and cheers.com to a strong mix of major clients, including Cinemax, American Baby magazine, BMG Special Products, and Net-based gamers The Bingo Hall Group. In 2001 the agency generated serious buzz in the media community for its high-profile online campaign for HBO's Band of Brothers, which included one of the earliest successful deployments of Shoskeles out of banner ads. The Band of Brothers work helped Earthquake establish itself as HBO's sole digital media agency.

Impressive as this history may be for an upstart, it marks, according to vice president and director of business development Jes Santoro, only the first step toward realizing the company's true ambition: to become the industry's premier independent integrated ad agency.

"When we got started," recalls Santoro, "all the buzz was about interactive. But for us the notion of online-offline integration was always primary. We saw that clients were being underserved by having to work through multiple companies, each only looking at one piece of the media puzzle. We've driven from the start to look at media as a whole."

Santoro and Earthquake's other principal, CEO and chairman Robert Davidson, are both first-generation online pioneers with strong roots in traditional media as well.

Davidson began his media career as a sports specialist for the Florida Marlin radio network, selling comprehensive sports marketing packages for baseball broadcasts. Later at Broadcast.com he developed sales strategy and revenue models that led to a very successful IPO. Following his work at Broadcast.com he served as director of broadcast services at Yahoo!, rolling out a Yahoo! broadcast model used in 24 countries. Davidson was named Earthquake CEO in 2001.

Santoro started in the media business as assistant to the president and CEO of NBC, helping coordinate and market the network's fall upfront schedule presentation. At BBDO he coordinated work for such national clients as MGM, HBO, FedEx, GE, and Lens Crafter/Luxotica.

Both men have made a major commitment to embedding the online-offline "integration ethos" into Earthquake's culture at all levels, by requiring that all employees have experience with multiple media. They also believe fervently in eliminating the distinction (and departmental conflict) between planning and buying.

"We don't have two separate departments, one for analysts, the other for buyers," says Santoro. "We insist on uniting those roles in one person. This cuts out the disconnect in the communication process which we think hurts other firms. The buyers don't have to be constantly going back to the planning group."

Santoro sees Earthquake's recent work for the academic test prep service The Princeton Review as a good example of what can be accomplished in a well-done integrated campaign. In spring 2002 Earthquake beat out rival AdMaster Communications to land the plum account, reportedly worth about $2 million a year.

"The Review wanted to increase enrollment in their fall and spring test prep study programs," explains Santoro. "While previously they had relied mainly on local newspaper ads, the goal was to use multiple touch-points to create top-of-mind awareness during their two peak enrollment seasons."

The plan included one-third-page ads in a variety of national publications popular with the 18Ð34 demographic, including men's books like Maxim and women's fashion and lifestyle magazines. They also sought to attract parents of high schoolÐage kids with ads in special educational issues in US News and World Report and The Wall Street Journal's "Classroom" supplement. Magazine ads were designed to drive traffic to The Princeton Review website, and also included an 800 number. A radio campaign was also launched in the Review's six top markets, with spots on contemporary hit radio and talk stations popular with the target market. On the Web, Earthquake used the major search engines, targeting keyword search queries of people looking for information on college, career, and educational opportunities. The creative in all ads emphasized how students and younger workers can take control of their careers and lives by gaining an edge on the competition through the test prep programs.

In tandem with the media buys, Earthquake coordinated an extensive billboard campaign on subway trains and at campus student centers. The agency also organized a national campus tour, sponsoring events at which Princeton Review kits and materials were given out to students.

"With the Princeton Review market," Santoro explains, "we're dealing with a difficult-to-reach group. They're active, busy, and don't have a lot of patience. They consume media in quick fragments, so we had to develop a campaign that worked simultaneously across media at different levels."

After the completion of the fall campaign, Earthquake ran extensive focus group studies to gauge on- and offline aided and unaided awareness. The agency's ad serving technology also gathered extensive anonymous data about visitors to the site. In addition, data was gathered from on-site polls at The Princeton Review site. Preliminary results have established a sharp uptick both in brand awareness and enrollment. "Making marketing more accountable in each medium is our Holy Grail," says Santoro.

Earthquake plans to build on the initial Princeton Review campaign with further, even more ambitious integrated efforts. According to Santoro, the agency also plans several breakthrough announcements in early 2003.

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