Media All-Stars 2004

DURING THE WINTRY DEPTHS of early 2004, Universal McCann media supervisor Michele Schuh found herself staying late at the agency’s San Francisco office, doing something a lot of people do at home: watching sports.

But rather than lounge on a couch with a remote in hand and a cold beverage at the ready, Schuh was at her desk, her phone line open to a colleague and her eyes glued to ESPN’s Web site, watching the progress of yet another basketball game.

“We just kept refreshing” the page view and hoped the game didn’t go into overtime, in order to get the final score as soon as possible, Schuh says. At the closing buzzer, she and her colleague, Zach Rubin, were quick to clue in Universal McCann’s production team, which, in turn, sent the score out to major newspapers so it could be used in ad copy the next day.

For her role in that unusual high-wire act, Schuh was selected as Mediaweek’s All-Star for Newspapers. The plan also was selected by Mediaweek as the Media Plan of the Year for Best Use of Newspapers last spring.

Schuh, 28, a five-year employee of Universal McCann, played the key role in the agency’s groundbreaking campaign, from mid-January to mid-February, for MSN Direct, a wristwatch that provides users with updated sports scores, stock prices, weather reports and other information. The device relies upon part of the FM radio band.

The campaign relied upon an agile use of the normally static newspaper medium.

For each of 144 inserts at newspapers in eight markets, as well as in the national newspaper USA Today, Universal McCann made sure that the faces of watches shown in display ads included updated information.

The agency didn’t stop there. It placed ads in appropriate sections of the papers. For instance, watches with the previous day’s stock market close appeared in financial pages and watches showing basketball scores appeared in sports sections. (Those who worry about blurring the line between ads and editorial can relax. The campaign appeared as a series of display ads, with watches set amid empty space. There was no danger that readers would mistake the watch’s face for news copy.)

Getting the information into the ads amounted to a month-long sprint, with stock markets to monitor in the afternoons and basketball games to track in the evenings. Throughout, Schuh stayed in close touch with associates at Universal McCann and with newspaper production departments, some of which were at first skeptical about bringing fresh information to a set ad run.

“It was a rough four weeks,” with late nights two or three times weekly, Schuh recalls.

Her boss, vp and group media director Leila Chism, says Schuh handled the stressful duties with aplomb.

“She was in the front lines and made sure the execution was flawless,” Chism recalls. “It was sort of unprecedented that you could get fixed placement on content pages of your choice: stocks, weather [or] sports. Michele handled that.”

Chism adds that it was unusual to run such late-night deadlines. “Michele handled that.”

Another thing Schuh handled, according to Chism, was the sometimes delicate negotiations with the newspapers. Newspapers used for the campaign include The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“Michele led those conversations,” Chism says. “Michele has a lot of enthusiasm. I think the thing that distinguishes her is, she really doesn’t know the word ‘no’…She’s really capable, and will try anything to win people over to her point of view.”

Schuh’s competence was no surprise.

She came to Universal McCann in August 1999 after a stint at Wenner Media, where she worked on Men’s Journal and Us Weekly. Her work at Universal McCann has included campaigns for other Microsoft projects, including Windows XP, Office XP and Tablet PC.

“She’s very hardworking and brings this level of enthusiasm to everything she does,” Chism says. “This is one where the results really stood out.”

Schuh has a straightforward perspective on her involvement in the project. Once the idea emerged from Universal McCann’s creative associates, she says, “We had to execute on it.” A key step came in the talks with newspapers.

Initial stages were marked by “quite a bit of pushback,” Schuh says. “That was a tough negotiation.”

By the end, however, there were no dropouts. “We got them all to agree to it,” Schuh reports. “We had to send them all pictures of what it looks like. And that helped.”

Chism said newspapers were aware that, while the campaign seemed to present some risk, it represented an opportunity, as well. Newspapers are among the most expensive buys in terms of CPM, Chism points out. Showing adaptability could help the medium overcome a perceived handicap imposed by its relative expense.

“I think they were pleased to demonstrate their flexibility to other advertisers, too,” Chism says, noting that newspapers are full of current information—a quality not normally reflected in the ads they carry.

“Timeliness hasn’t proven to be a big advantage,” Chism says. “But this is the way they can demonstrate that timeliness improves the overall result of the communication.”

Timeliness is what Microsoft wanted to emphasize as it launched MSN Direct earlier this year, during the flat, post-Christmas retail period.

The deadline-driven provision of watch-face copy was a $765,000 component of a broader campaign. The campaign included significant use of outdoor, including space in Times Square that was updated three times daily, as well as radio, regional magazines and newspaper Web sites, which were updated four times daily.

After the start of the campaign, Microsoft increased its spending to $11 million, up from the $7 million originally envisioned.

Call the increase a $4 million vote of confidence in an innovative, even risky, ad campaign.

Another vote of confidence in Schuh’s work: She’s now working on yet another campaign for the MSN product line that includes the MSN Direct information service.

This time, though, Schuh’s plan calls for TV and online buys—which leaves her a bit wistful. “I’m not doing any cool newspaper right now, unfortunately,” she says. Todd Shields is Washington editor at Mediaweek.