No More Funny Stuff

Gone are the days of singing sock puppets and flying gerbils. Gone are the days of building a brand at any cost, with unlimited marketing budgets and anything-goes advertising.

Even the word “dot-com” is all but gone. “There isn’t such a thing as a dot-com anymore,” says Ed ward Bochus, chief creative officer at Mul len in Wenham, Mass. “There are companies doing business on line.” (LendingTree and Monster, for example, have dropped the “.com,” and companies like Datek have cut “online” from their names.)

But while an era is over, a stable of online businesses is still advertising—there was, in fact, one more dot-com marketer in this year’s Super Bowl than in last year’s. Spending, of course, is down from the level it reached in 2000 (it dropped by one-third last year), when the dot-com frenzy reached its peak.

For the top 10 dot-com advertisers, media spending exploded by nearly 75 percent to roughly $650 million in 2000. The seemingly endless supply of venture capital that supported what were often fly-by-night startups sparked a so-called second creative revolution in the late ’90s. “It allowed creative people to be creative, inventive—not be overly restrained by research and corporate hierarchy,” says Bochus. “Creative was churned quickly and approved by entrepreneurs.”

The downside of that freedom quickly became apparent. “In 1999, there was a lot of outrageousness, flip humor, brashness—the intention was to break through, but that obscured what the product was,” says Marissa Gluck, senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix in New York.

“While that stuff was great creative, it wasn’t great advertising,” adds Ron Lawner, chairman and chief creative officer of Arnold in Boston.

Today, it’s all about getting back to basics. “Right now, [dot-coms] are demonstrating product value and building brand affinity,” says Gluck. While the outrageousness of many dot-com ads reflected the ethos of the era, now “it’s a more sober environment,” she says. “We’re in a recession and a war.”

Tangible results have become the No. 1 goal. “All the changes in creativity have been changes in strategic focus. Strategies of breaking through, awareness and buzz have given way to moving merchandise,” says Mark DiMassimo, CEO and creative director at DiMassimo Brand Advertising in New York, whose dot-com campaigns included HotWire, Kozmo and eDiets.

Some dot-coms, however, have managed to maintain consistency in their ads even as times changed. We look at one notable example, Yahoo!. Another successful dot-com, Monster, has gone through several adjustments in strategy while maintaining a healthy media budget. Finally, we look at what a recent startup, Orbitz, has learned from other dot-coms’ failed experiments.

Since its first, tiny campaign broke six years ago, Yahoo!’s marketing efforts have been based on essentially the same strategy—even as the target audience for the Internet search engine has changed and its competitive landscape has shifted dramatically.

Yahoo!’s simple but quirky advertising won praise and notice for startup San Francisco agency Black Rocket back in 1996. Dozens of ads and countless yodels later, the shop, now owned by Euro RSCG, has not strayed from that path: Ordinary folks are still going to Yahoo! for extraordinary solutions to their problems.

Take its latest 30-second commercial, which broke during this year’s Super Bowl. On the island of Palau in Micronesia, a tourist and a dolphin realize that they both discovered the destination via Yahoo!. Yahoo!’s first ad featured an 80-year-old fisherman who used information from Yahoo! to snag several 250-pound fish.

“It’s not as much about change as it is about consistency,” says John Yost, founding partner and managing director at Black Rocket Euro RSCG. “Certainly, as their strategy and positioning have evolved, the creative has adapted to that. But certain original elements that were established back in 1996—elements of the campaign, elements of the brand personality—have remained constant.”

The “Do you Yahoo!?” tagline has remained constant, as has the yodeled “Yahoo” at the end of each commercial.

Much of what has changed in Yahoo!’s creative execution and ad strategy was a result of expansion in the company’s services. The message first focused on search capabilities, then emphasized making connections with people and later highlighted shopping.

One 1997 ad, for instance, featured a balding, youthful man searching under the words “health” and “hair.” The next scene shows him strutting down a busy street with a bushy, four-foot afro. Later ads showed vignettes demonstrating how like-minded souls connect through Yahoo!, like a man with an obnoxious pet monkey and a punk rocker who loves to quilt.

By 1998, ads emphasized commerce, with a fisherman in the Arctic waste land using Yahoo Shopping to buy a hot tub and a barbecue, and an overweight superhero, unable to pursue a purse snatcher, stocking up on handbags via Yahoo! to compensate the crime victims. “When we got to that point, we sort of summarized that Yahoo! was the only place you need to go on the Internet to find things, to connect with people or to buy,” says Yost.

The first campaigns largely were aimed at the early adopters of the Internet, generally twenty some thing males, but the agency also tried to cast a wider net, predicting that waves of new people would be introduced to the Web. Now, of course, campaigns target a mass audience.

What’s also different now is the number of competitors challenging Yahoo!. At one point, the search engine was up against almost 60 different players. Today, Yahoo!’s major rivals are America Online and MSN. The next advertising step is to differentiate the brand—which spent $35 million on measured media last year—from the other two.

“Our job was to be as distinctive as we can, but sort of stay our course,” says Yost. “The consumer has already done a good job of defining us as being a brand that was a fun brand, a brand that was irreverent, a brand that was an innovator, a brand that would take chances, a brand that was a leader.”

In 1999, Monster broke its first ad campaign on the Super Bowl, one of only two dot-coms advertising during the big game that year. The black-and-white spot by Mullen, titled “When I Grow Up,” showed straight-faced children spouting the joys of dead-end jobs in middle management with the tagline, “There’s a better job out there.”

“We created a spot that was the zeitgeist of the time,” says Mullen’s Bochus of “When I Grow Up.” “It encouraged people to take control of their life—demand a certain amount of satisfaction from your job.”

The spot was well-liked, leading to high expectations the following year. But many critics thought Monster failed to deliver, with a dark and dreamy spot that quoted Robert Frost as a young woman standing on a corner watched people go by. “We wanted to do something that would be the antithesis of everything else [on the Super Bowl],” says Bochus. “It was polarizing—you either loved it or didn’t.”

The initial advertising strategy was to decode for consumers what the Web site was, says Peter Blacklow, svp of marketing at the Bos ton-based company. This was reflected in the very literal tag.

The next year, the focus was on showing how Monster was about more than just finding a job. “It was about managing a career online—and on Monster,” says Blacklow. The theme changed to, “Work. Life. Possibilities.”

In fall 2000, Monster switched agencies, hiring crosstown shop Arnold. Blacklow praises Mullen as “the perfect agency to launch the brand,” but says Monster decided Arnold was better equipped to handle creative and strategic for what had become a bigger company and more complex industry.

Arnold came up with the current aspirational theme, “Never settle.” Rather than focusing on avoiding regret, as past efforts did, the spots advocated making your “Job good” and “Life good,” here and now.

The 2001 Super Bowl spot showed a software engineer who has just landed an entry-level job gleefully sniffing his new business cards. In another spot in the campaign, a newly promoted executive crank-calls his office phone number and revels in listening to his assistant answer, “Mr. Johnson’s office.”

This year, Monster’s focus has broadened to include career learning and relocation, and is targeted at both job seekers and employers. The tone aims less to amuse than to inspire. “We’re trying to say that when you get a job that you really like, it can be a thrill. It can be exciting,” says Pete Favat, managing partner and group creative director at Arnold.

“Fit Guy” was Monster’s Super Bowl spot this year. It shows footage of Olym pians competing in their respective sports, and a voiceover says, “Take away the crowds … the clock … the other athletes. What do you have left? A really fit guy who needs a job.”

To emphasize how getting a better job improves one’s home life as well, other new work this year consists of fast-paced vignettes of people in their work and family environments (one spot broke this quarter, and a second breaks next quarter).

This year’s advertising efforts will be backed by a robust $150 million budget, according to Monster.

Befitting a company that launched after the dot-com exuberance had died out, 9-month-old online travel service Orbitz is being ultra-cautious in formulating its strategy—as chief marketing officer Mike Sands puts it, Orbitz is taking a “learn-and-leverage” approach rather than a “spend-and-pray” one.

“We’ll take a deliberate approach to the market where we’ll test different tools—whether it’s print or radio or TV—find the right formula and we’ll spend behind it,” explains Sands.

The initial TV and radio campaign, which broke last June, emphasized fun in travel with the theme, “Visit Planet Earth via Or bitz.” A spokesman on a reclining chair at the beach extolled the convenience and low fares of Orbitz while three models in Hawaiian attire sat next to computer monitors on the sand. The campaign, from TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York, was rolled out in about a dozen markets.

“Through broadcast, we took a more measured ap proach, where we went into our top markets and really pursued a spot before we went national,” says Sands.

Print work took a different tack, using graphics reminiscent of ’60s travel posters by two artists of that period, David Klein and Robert Swan son. “The online travel marketplace was very crowded, so we had to come up with executions that would stand out,” says Sands. “Using the travel-poster meta phor in combination with our core message of the lowest fares really broke through.”

As the travel industry fell into a funk, the fun-focused theme morphed into the much more practical, “Lower fares.” The tagline, “Proudly created by the world’s leading airlines,” positions Orbitz as a travel authority.

Last month, Orbitz switched agencies, with the Chicago-based company saying it preferred to work with a local shop. While the company continues to use the work developed by TBWA\C\D, its creative account is now handled by Fusion Idea Lab in Chicago.

Orbitz’s spending has been as restrained as its creative strategy. The account is a much smaller one than the business TBWA\C\D originally took on—while sources say the startup initially planned on a $100 million marketing budget last year, it ended up spending just $15 million on measured media, according to CMR. The company says lower spending is due to the travel climate post-Sept. 11 and also to a decision to put a lot of stock in online advertising, which represents about half of Orbitz’s media budget.

The company places banners, buttons and skyscrapers, among other ad units, on several sites, and it pays based on an ad’s performance. “Online marketing is alive and well,” says Sands. The ads are updated daily to reflect airline deals, which, says Sands, is exactly what consumers want to know: “What’s your best price today? Where can you take me? How can I get there? The space is very rational.”

Orbitz was spared a lot of grief, not to mention money, by learning from the failures of the dot-com frenzy. “People were getting pressure to spend money that would never perform from an ROI perspective, and ultimately that’s why a lot of businesses failed—because they couldn’t make their efforts pay out,” Sands says. “By launching later, we could really focus on return on investment and not chase after overpriced media.”