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Feature: Beat The Clock

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Twenty-seven days. Less than a month to invent the How2HQ brand and introduce it to consumers. The task seems daunting, but in the frenzied world of dot coms, GSD&M is one of the lucky ones. Many agencies get less than two weeks to complete similar assignments. Hey, it only took Steve Solomon, the former chief executive of Citadel Technology, eight months to launch How2HQ, a Web subsidiary that offers everyday advice on topics ranging from relationships to car buying.
And it didn't take long for marketing consultant Allan Steinmetz to jump on board as the Dallas company's marketing czar, either. Last month, Steinmetz took two weeks to hire GSD&M--and the race began. How2HQ wanted a campaign to debut Sept. 13. The harried pace took its toll on both the agency and the client. Adweek had a behind-the-scenes look at the process and witnessed the high-octane, high-pitched, high-anxiety drama that comes with servicing a dot-com client.

Aug. 9 - Five weeks to launch
Looking crisp and casual, Allan Steinmetz relaxes at a waterfront bar across the bay from San Francisco after six days of traveling around the country visiting with prospective ad agencies. He has taken a leave as chief of 9-month-old Inward Strategic Consulting in Boston to join the How2HQ mission. He describes the Web site, which is still under construction, as a one-stop shop for instructions on various lifestyle activities--from playing blackjack to making a martini to building a deck. How2HQ also offers online help in cashing in rebates, which brings revenue to the site from the manufacturers who provide the rebates. The company's parent, Citadel Technology, is a well-established provider of security software.
Between calls and bites of smoked salmon, Steinmetz announces he's canceled the second round of the agency search to save time. Instead, he'll pick a shop based on the initial meetings, introduce its players directly to How2HQ execs and hope the personalities mesh. Under consideration are: GSD&M, Austin, Texas; Ground Zero, Santa Monica, Calif.; Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco; and Dallas shops DDB and an alliance of The Richards Group and Pyro. Arnold Communications, Boston, and Deutsch, New York, exited the race early. As Steinmetz finishes his meal, Goodby partners decide not to pitch. The three-month, $15 million budget is enticing. The timetable and travel are not.

Aug. 16 - Four weeks to launch
GSD&M is Steinmetz's top choice, with Ground Zero as a backup. In Austin, the shop's charismatic chief executive, Roy Spence, leads the shop's nine-member team as they try to impress company founder and chief executive Steve Solomon, president Kenny Johnsen and executive vice president of marketing Steinmetz. Turns out Steinmetz and Spence first met in 1991 when Steinmetz was being courted by a sister agency. GSD&M doesn't know it is the only finalist.
After an offsite retreat the following day, all 500-plus employees gather at the agency's offices and learn they've just won their first major consumer Web account. The site itself--in a very limited form--first appears on the Web. The tone is humble, earnest and populist. The graphics consist of stock art and a plain typeface. The site itself exudes a 1950s Ozzie and Harriet feeling.

Aug. 19 - 25 days to launch
The agency has yet to finalize a compensation agreement with the client, even as planners and creative directors begin working on positioning and ad concepts. With a projected annual budget of $40 million, How2HQ will be one of the $750 million agency's smaller accounts. "We are spending a lot more time on this client than we would for a typical client of this size, but with the same number of people," says account director Klaudia Flanigin.

Aug. 23 - 21 days to launch
Steinmetz says the company has been informally calling itself "The headquarters for lifestyle shopping and saving." The shop is e-mailing information and ideas to Steinmetz every day and conducting a phone conference with him every afternoon. Flanigin is stunned that an 11:30 p.m. e-mail she zaps to Steinmetz from home gets an instant reply. There is no time for the shop to screen and evaluate its ideas--everything is shared. Planners use research collected for other Web clients they've pitched. They're also conducting interviews with Austin office workers at lunchtime and agency employees who are not working on the account. In a fateful move, GSD&M convinces the client to let it revamp the site's question-mark logo and design.

Aug. 25 - 19 days to launch
Another 100-degree August afternoon in Austin and about two dozen GSD&M staffers from various departments have gathered in a small room to discuss launch strategies. A hot, glaring city street is the backdrop to the room's bright-green, pink and lemon walls. Chief planner James Martin, in shorts and sandals, runs the meeting with Flanigin's help. The How2HQ people want users to go to the site "because it is an interesting place for
people who want to learn," Martin says. He insists the site must position itself as the place people go for answers, not "17,000 possible answers on other sites." A big concern, he says, is getting people involved with the site when chances are in its first few weeks the site won't have the answer they're seeking.
When Flanigin launches into a discussion of rebates as a way the site differs from other similar advice sites, the group is mystified. "Why rebates?" someone asks. "It's a source of revenue," she says. Martin adds: "We have to figure out whether it's a point of differentiation. If it isn't compelling, we won't build a brand with it." He repeats what everyone knows too well: "Sept. 13 is staring down at us."

Aug. 31 - 13 days to launch
A trendy restaurant banquet room a few blocks from the agency is filled with 30 people from across the U.S. They include How2HQ managers from Dallas and Silicon Valley, PR pros from Ketchum Communications in New York, two executives from the Chicago branch of promotions agency KBA Marketing and several staffers from GSD&M.
Their goal is to define a positioning theme for an integrated marketing campaign. They have two days and as much caffeine and sugar as they need. Between the charts, graphs, quips and questions, client executives get their message across to the group. This site will be a free place for ideas on interesting things to do, with instructions and products to help users. It is not a portal, search engine, ad medium or a place to answer obscure questions. CEO Solomon compares it to a network of cable TV channels.
Solomon adds that consumers are sick and tired of hassles in collecting their rebates, particularly rebates for more than $50. The site will offer a solution by providing forms that consumers mail in with sales receipts. He tells the agencies, "What we need now is an elegant, simplistic way to explain what we are." A few people ask if the rebates need to be part of the launch announcement. "Yes, or tell me why not," Solomon responds.
At lunch, GSD&M staffers are huddling. "This product is different than we thought from the pitch and the brief," says planner Martin. "This is about more than answers. The HQ part is more important." So is the rebate component. Both creative and strategic executives admit that much of the work they've done is irrelevant or wrong.
Later, a discussion of online competitors, such as AskJeeves.com and About.com, evolves into a consensus that the How2HQ site is breaking into new territory--an online network of lifestyle magazines with transaction services. The decibel level rises. Someone yells out, "Maybe this really is the dawn of the new economy." Client executives call the site "a door to the new world order. A revolution."
Steinmetz struggles to keep order. Solomon tells the group, "You are our conscience. We want dissent, we want you to question things. Later, in a fit of generosity, he makes a deal. If his company meets its goals by the end of 1999, he'll treat them all to a weekend in Las Vegas.

Sept. 1 - 12 days to launch
The second day of meetings is in the agency war room. The coffee is stronger. There are no windows. It is Spence's turn to talk. He has a gift for finding the middle ground, translating it into a single phrase and then delivering it with a missionary zeal that makes it sound more exciting than it is. "Seems like the main point is that this site does not provide answers so much as it enhances life Imagination is bigger than knowledge. Tell people 'what you can imagine, we can provide, we will give the control back to you.' Imagine that." The ensemble then agrees on two positioning statements: "Imagine that" and "Upgrade your life." The promotions and PR people lean toward "Upgrade." The agency and client prefer "Imagine." There's a standoff.
The solution: test both ideas in focus groups the following week. The creative teams will craft ads, a logo and promotion ideas for each position. They have just five days. The agencies join forces to push the client for another week or even a few days. But Steinmetz stands firm. "We have commitments." Ed Olsen, who is in charge of site production, looks green. He says this plan has a huge effect on his work. "We are a Siamese family at this point. Everything we do affects the other." It's time to talk about tactics.
Steinmetz says the media budget is up to $20 million for the fourth quarter, despite Solomon's attempts to backpedal. Pushed for specifics, client executives talk about marketing efforts that start at launch and increase over time with a "snowball effect." The agency finally has a clear direction.
"That is a big deal to us," says Alicia Smith Kriese, GSD&M group director of business development. "This isn't a big blow-out launch, but a build-up. We just went from 'Oh, my god' to 'We can do this.' " In the lobby, Spence says he gets a kick out of the speed and urgency of dot-com clients. "This is fun. It offers a shock, a jolt. This client can sharpen our operation, make us entrepreneurs again, plus give us a chance to do work that is more creative."

Sept. 7 - 6 days to launch
A major and unexpected decision: "We have just decided to delay the launch eight days to Sept. 21," Steinmetz barks into his cell phone on his way to the first focus group meetings in Chicago. He rattles off the reasons: The site will be in better shape technically, more media is available to buy that week, since it is the week after the Emmy awards. And most importantly, "We only get one shot at this. We don't want the production quality and the creative people to be under undue pressure."
A few hours later, the focus groups are shown four positions, including two new entries, "Surprise yourself" (with fresh new ideas) and "Good intentions" (don't procrastinate). There is no overriding, clear-cut winner, no single focus for the creatives to work with. After the sessions end at 10 p.m., creative director Daniel Russ jets from Chicago back to the office, armed with consumer comments about the site and Steinmetz's reaction to thumbnails of the work in progress. As creatives work on storyboards the next day, they pray the focus sessions in Boston that night confirm they're on the right track. Unfortunately, Steinmetz is not happy with any of the logo ideas he's seen.

Sept. 8 - 13 days to new launch
Final focus group results are in. Boston liked parts of all four ideas. Creatives are working with the position, "Finally, this is a place for ideas, not solutions." The working tag is "Headquarters for life." The word "imagine" is dropped. It's considered too generic. Martin says the problem with "Upgrade" is the "language that tells people they ought to upgrade their life, suggesting that their life sucks." The team works all night to get the storyboards ready for a morning presentation in Dallas.

Sept. 9 - 12 days to launch
The elegant offices of How2HQ parent Citadel Technology look out over the distant city skyline. Client executives gather in a black-and- gray conference room, where they'll get their first glimpse of the agency's work. Russ is wearing his best black cowboy boots, which help draw attention away from his bloodshot eyes. Steinmetz has stomach pains from anxiety. Both are pumping with adrenaline. Martin explains that the focus groups thought of the site as the Good Housekeeping or Reader's Digest of the Internet. Both the content and the rebate offers were considered valuable, "but consumers could find no connection, no bridge, between the two."
The agency says it is unhappy with the tag "Headquarters for life" because life is so big. They think the company is promising too much. Russ pitches alternative tags: "Don't miss a thing" and "Surprise yourself." CEO Solomon shoots down both; the discussion drifts off without a resolution. Then Russ, a former stand-up comic, begins to read the copy he's written.
They are irreverent tirades, Dennis Miller-style, about how hard it is to find useful information. "Why is it that your neighbors, who you know for a fact have worse jobs than you, always seem to take better vacations? Why do you never get the airplane seat with the leg room? Or the rental car with the head room? Why, oh why, does it take a Ph.D. in statistical analysis to decode the rebate instructions? And don't get you started on that VCR, right?" Solomon applauds.
Another of Russ' "radio rants" begins with: "Rebate. What is that, Latin for scam?" The clients are laughing. "Keep going, this is fun," company president Johnsen says. "You got 20 more?" Russ also shows them a dozen ad strips that can be used for both print and TV.
In one, the first panel shows a father exasperated with his nose-ringed teenage son. The second panel says, "Communicate with your kids," and the third panel shows both father and son with nose rings.
For newspaper ads, the shop shows variations on a maze, word puzzles and word games. The client's favorite execution shows a maze constructed of questions and a computer mouse--originally a pencil--poised to enter the maze. The mouse was Solomon's idea. Finally, there is the nagging logo problem.
Russ shows a variety of images crafted by his creative partner Larry Jarvis, including "the dancing guy," a creature formed out of the characters How2. Jarvis, Russ and other agency staffers push for the dancing guy, but the clients don't seem excited about the choices. Site producer Olsen worries that the agency's choice is too fun. Steinmetz and Solomon eventually decide to go with the dancing guy, with slight modifications. Four hours have passed.
As the meeting adjourns, GSD&M promises to refine the tagline, the logo and the copy. At least one newspaper ad and six radio spots need to ship in a week. Later, Steinmetz says, "This is exciting and exhilarating and all, but we must be out of our minds."

Sept. 14 - 7 days to launch
The tagline is set: "Headquarters for living." There's no logo yet, though the ads ship in two days. The Web designers can't fit the dancing guy into the site layout. Then, when Steinmetz opens the latest Adweek, he spots a strikingly similar logo in a story about another Web site, Allowance.com. The dancing guy is killed. Meanwhile, Ketchum and KBA are working frantically on launch events tied to the ads. Everyone is toiling night and day. Steinmetz, the optimist, has lost his bravado. "If we pull this off, it will be a miracle," he says.

Sept. 16 - 5 days to launch
"Greetings from Chaos Central" remarks one of the GSD&M account executives. Radio spots are ready and the first newspaper ad, built around a word puzzle, gets final approval at 9 p.m., after 11 frustrating hours of traffic managers bouncing between the shop and multiple client executives who want to examine every detail. Agency staffers are pulled away from their tasks to confer with the other marketing agencies on the overall launch plan. The word puzzle ad is being coordinated with a promotional contest by KBA in which 750,000 similar puzzles will be handed out to commuters at train and bus stations around the country from Sept. 21-23.
Late in the afternoon, a logo gets the OK and is slapped into the print ad and contest materials. The approved logo is adapted from a symbol already on the company's site, an abstract cube with a question mark in the middle. A lightbulb replaces the question mark to suggest ideas rather than answers. Despite weeks of effort, the agency has only had a minor impact on the client's tagline and logo. On top of everything else, Hurricane Floyd is pounding New York City, so FedEx and UPS can't deliver the company's ads to The Wall Street Journal and other publications. The work has to be sent again, this time via computer.

Sept. 17 - 4 days to launch
With launch work shipped, the team turns its attention to the maze print ad that will run two days after launch. The agency stubbornly plans to try and tweak the approved logo to make it more contemporary.

Sept. 21 - Launch
The full-blown Web site is unveiled. Print ads break in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and regional newspapers in the country's top 15 "wired" markets. Spot radio ads and the contest handouts appear in the same key markets. The agency hosts a low-key get-together at the office with supermarket champagne and a cake frosted with the client's name.
Key players Martin and Russ aren't around, and Steinmetz has to toast the agency from New York, where he and other client executives are busy courting the press. Spence stops by to deliver a pep talk that begins, "Now y'all know what cyberspeed is." As he exhorts the 30-plus staffers about "the new agency model for the 21st century," they have other concerns on their minds. Less than two weeks to complete outdoor work, less than four weeks to produce the TV spots. A third newspaper ad ships in a couple of days. Put the champagne on ice.
--Austin journalist Joe Holley helped report this story. His work has appeared in Texas Monthly and U.S. News & World Report.