Agency Profile: Mediasmith

David Smith recalls an early 1990s magazine article in which editors at a now-defunct publication took him to task for purchasing links on a number of Web sites to complement a client's print campaign. It was an era in which Internet advertising was still considered experimental.

"They accused us of trying to commercialize the Web. Oh, the horror of it all," says Smith, founder and CEO of Mediasmith Inc., San Francisco, one of the first agencies to buy into the emerging world of online advertising.

Smith obviously relishes his maverick reputation, and considers himself and his agency pioneers in other areas. He claims to have created one of the first media shops to favor media planning over buying.

"I liken it to the difference between an architect and a contractor. Which would you want to hire first for a project?" he says.

Innovation aside, recent years have been tough for Mediasmith. The firm hung on through the tech bust, and then stumbled again in 2002 when fallout from the terrorist attacks forced the closure of a newly opened New York office. But business recovered nicely in 2004, as the agency's revenues and client base each more than doubled. Estimated billings for 2005 will exceed $50 million, Smith says.

Major clients include online music service Napster, video game maker EIDOS Interactive, and Macrovision, which markets digital copyright protection and encryption software. The agency earned kudos last year for a campaign (in partnership with Venables, Bell & Partners, San Francisco), promoting the relaunch of Napster as a fee-based downloading service.

Although Mediasmith has traditionally drawn the majority of its clients from the worlds of the Internet and e-commerce, the mix is changing. New customers include sub-prime mortgage lender New Century Financial, insurer MetLife, and NetSuite, a company that develops business software.

Like many of his industry colleagues, Smith preaches an integrated approach to media. He promotes a culture in which all employees are cross-trained in the ways of both interactive and traditional media. A recent internal presentation on print reach and frequency drew interest from the entire staff.

"Some of these people will never do print reach and frequency, but they want to understand it. They are here because they have real opportunity to work in all media," Smith says.

Mediasmith bolstered its ranks late last year, bringing in industry veteran Bob Heymann as chief search officer. A leading author and entrepreneur, Heymann is credited with coining the term "search engine optimization," and for his early work on the agency side of search engine management.

Mediasmith added more than a dozen people in 2004, sending Smith on a search for new digs. He recently signed a lease on a new space.

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