Admine founders Bill Replogle and Wayne Miller have to wonder if the granite slab outside their northern Virginia office suite is a tablet or a tombstone. No one has bothered to remove the names and logos of other companies once headquartered in the Airbus Building.
It has been almost six months since the two 40-something entrepreneurs and a gray beard named David Abramson opened Admine, an Internet superstore where ad campaigns are recycled ("re-purposed") and licensed to small and midsized advertisers around the country.
Admine, located in Herndon, Va., serves many purposes. It can introduce advertising now sitting idle in agency archives to local and regional markets representing some $19 billion in creative spending. It can generate additional income for agencies, freelancers and frustrated creatives eager to see their work live on by offering clients the ability to recoup some of the out-of-pocket costs of its original campaigns.
"Advertising is a highly inefficient business," says Miller. "Where else is there so much upfront investment trying to secure or retain a client with the hope of evolving with that client over time and creating a profitable relationship? Admine addresses that imbalance."
Last spring, Admine's buzz reverberated throughout the industry, winning the endorsement of heavy hitters like Jay Chiat, Mullen chief creative officer Edward Boches, Michael Dweck and the American Association of Advertising Agencies executive vice president Michael Donahue, who joined the company's advisory committee.
"We all have file cabinets filled with ideas," says advisory board member Bruce Turkel, chief creative officer, at Miami's Turkel Schwartz & Partners. "An idea is both worthless and priceless at the same time. If you don't show it to clients, it's worthless. We develop these intellectual assets all the time. Some get utilized, some don't. This is an opportunity to mine—and mine is the perfect word—all the value many of us have in our portfolios."
Admine has yet to strike gold. The "hockey stick" growth curve, Miller and Replogle originally predicted, has remained flat. No more than a handful of transactions have been recorded on Admine's ledgers; staff and aggressive marketing schemes have been cut; and ticklish intellectual property questions are still being resolved.
"There are a lot of moving parts to Admine," concedes Miller. "It's not easy to do. When we started, we didn't know what we didn't know."
Nonetheless, Chiat and other supporters say the company's business plan is practical and persuasive. "We wouldn't look at it as a revenue stream, but if we can make a couple of bucks, it'll be cool," says Chuck Porter, chairman of Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Miami, whose agency will submit work to Admine. "Your creative team may have a brilliant idea for a car dealer, but there's no car dealer on the books. It provides a venue for ideas."
By year's end, Admine hopes to secure an additional $10 million in financing on top of more than $3 million already in hand from the Venture House Group, a Washington, D.C.-area e-commerce incubator, and a string of individual investors. The continuing wave of dot-com flameouts has tightened the purse strings on venture capital. "We're not a dot-com," counters Replogle. "We're an online business for offline advertising."
Admine's coffers, if not full, certainly have product to sell: 300 agencies have submitted more than 3,000 campaigns. And Corbis Images in New York provides Admine with fully licensed stock photography.
"What you see six months from now will be a whole lot different from what you see today," says Miller. "Instead of trying to light the whole world on fire at once, we'll be kicking off with a very specific focus."
Dot-com or not, Admine's management team is sophisticated. "This is not an idea that was hatched over pizza in a dorm," says Turkel.
Red-haired Replogle, who began his career as a creative director at what was then Arnold Advertising in Boston, was president of Rainmaker, a Virginia boutique that included America Online, National Geographic and SmithKline Beecham as clients.
Miller, Admine's front man, is blessed with brown eyes and nonstop sincerity. He describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur bitten by the Internet bug." At the University of Pittsburgh, Miller started a company—Discotech—and patented a machine that helped DJs synchronize their beats. He worked as a restaurateur, then was sales director for Hill-Rom, a manufacturer of hospital equipment. He was Deloitte & Touche's national director of business development, and later held that position at Proxicom, a Weston, Va.-based Web consultant.
Forty years ago, Abramson, 65, who still sounds like he's been lifted from a North Boston street corner, founded AbramsonErlichManes in Washington, D.C. He has worked as a consultant, chaired the mid-Atlantic council of the 4A's and is a panelist on the National Advertising Review Board.
An Election Day staff meeting, celebrated with pizza and soft drinks in a red-walled break room, is high energy and raucous, with Miller acting more like a master of ceremonies than CEO. The recent Corbis deal, an announcement regarding two new investors and an outreach to the National Association of Bankers are greeted with equal enthusiasm by 24 staffers. "Awesome!" Miller declares, describing "Project Genesis," an in-house research initiative exploring likely industry sectors to target. "It would have cost $1,000,000 at Deloitte & Touche!"
Syndication is hardly a new concept in the industry. Salespeople have always scuttled around backwater communities and under-served markets, hustling film, tapes and adbooks with tearsheets. Chiat remembers being approached 25 years ago by "an itinerant peddler who said, 'We really like this campaign for the home-loan company you've done. There are a couple of companies Down South who would like to license the campaign.'
"To our client, it was an opportunity to recover some production costs, so it was attractive to them. For us, it was the opportunity to increase revenue on stuff we'd already produced. We said 'OK.' And of course, we never saw this guy again."
The Internet forces such dealers to the sidelines, says Chiat, now chairman of New York's Screaming Media, a content syndicator and distributor for Web sites. "It makes distribution a very simple process."
Larry Work, proprietor of Sam & Harry's restaurants (Washington D.C., and Tyson's Corner, Va.) and the Caucus Room in Washington, found Admine online. He was looking to get into the wedding rehearsal dinner business and wanted to place an ad in Washington Bride magazine. He filled out a request for creative on the Web site.
"We've always used traditional ad agencies, which are great and have benefits," says Work. "But there are so many times when we need to get ads off the ground in a hurry. We pulled ads up on the computer quickly and chose them quickly. Admine met our specific needs. We pulled it all off within a couple of weeks. Quick and easy." And it cost him, he says, "well under $5,000."
Agencies, freelancers, even ad schools submit print, radio, TV and outdoor work through the company's Web site or over the transom. An in-house review board catalogues and critiques submissions. Thus far, 65 percent of approximately 3,000 have been approved. Seventy-five percent has come from about 300 agencies. "We're looking for good, hard-working advertising," says Abramson. "Not schlock. We want to give local and regional advertisers access to work they'd normally be unable to get."
The work then is passed to Admine's five-person creative department to be rendered generic and exhibited on the Web site. In the "showroom," clients can shop categories—healthcare, financial services, automotive, restaurant, retail, furniture, jewelry—much like tire kickers in a used car lot. The ads are further categorized by price, tone and demographics. The work is licensed exclusively for limited periods of time in various markets.
Fees, says Replogle, are less than half the cost of a commissioned campaign. Revenues are then split 50-50 between Admine and the creator/owner of the work. Admine is responsible for tracking and paying all talent and royalty fees.
Despite Admine's potential, the tension between e-commerce's blinding speed and the measured steps required to build and fund a going concern are exacting a toll. Plans to showcase advertising across a dozen industries, for example, have been scaled back in favor of a vertical approach targeting healthcare, banking and automotive markets.
Part of the problem is the sheer volume and array of ads needed to stock Admine's showroom. "For us to launch a retail category right now would do nothing except disappoint people," says Miller. "We're in the process of aggregating content and relationships."
Admine's staff, at 40 earlier this year, has been trimmed by almost one-third. A $12 million marketing campaign awarded to The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., last summer is on hold. Tammy Ebaugh, Admine's marketing vp who planned the rollout, has left the company. Broadcast e-mails and networking appeals to trade associations and industry representatives have replaced full-page trade ads.
Ultimately, it all comes down to a second round of financing. Miller needs to move the business into a transactional phase, scheduled for the first of the year.
"There's still lots of money out there, but it's more difficult to access," he says. "We have a viable business model. We've proved the dog can eat the dog food and demonstrated that we can scale and execute effectively against our business plan."
He pauses, fingering the tiny red and gold pin Admine employees wear. "We've proved we're smart enough to change. But it's a survivors' game now. No question."