Universal McCann

The Embedders
Zach Rubin, Leila Chism, Michele Schuh and Madeline Alvarez

It’s early evening and it’s crunch time at 135 Main Street, San Francisco, where a Universal McCann media planning team is running a special mission. Its members are scurrying between creative on the 14th floor and account services up on 22 and the group leader’s office on 21. There’s no time to enjoy the late-day sun’s play on the Bay Bridge, or the San Francisco Bay beyond, for the goal is to devise real-time ad copy for a quick relay to waiting newspapers.

The next morning, along with thousands of readers, team members can see the fruits of their labors: small-space newspaper ads embedded in financial sections, weather pages and elsewhere in newspapers. Each ad features a depiction of a watch that receives the new, wireless MSN Direct information service. On each watch face appears the copy the team had crafted just hours before: a sports score, a weather forecast, or a snippet of a headline that mirrors news and other current information in the newspaper.

The newspaper ads were one part of an $11.5 million campaign to introduce the new service from Microsoft. Because of its unusual, deadline-driven provision of ad copy, the $765,000 component devoted to newspapers was chosen Media Plan of the Year for Best Use of Newspapers.

Twice a week from mid-January to mid-February, the Universal McCann team, led by Leila Chism, stayed late to write the copy that would appear in the watch faces the next morning. The complex high-wire act compressed the normally discrete processes of creating, approving, composing and transmitting an ad into one long, adrenaline-filled sprint.

“It’s not unusual for agency people to work late,” says Chism, vp and group media director. “But it is unusual to be meeting a deadline like this.”

The campaign ran for four weeks across eight newspapers, for a total of 144 insertions. “It was a way for us to demonstrate in a real-time fashion the real-time way in which information is delivered to your watch,” says Chism. “Any copy we put in the watch face was as current as information in the newspaper.”

What MSN Direct has to offer is up-to-date delivery of customized information, using part of the FM radio band. Brands offering the service initially include Fossil and Suunto; owners select what information stream they wish to receive. Categories include sports, news, weather, stocks and horoscope. Users pay a fee of $9.95 per month, or less under longer-term service plans. In return they get short, text-based messages updating them on weather forecasts, stock movements, sports scores and other information.

Microsoft asked Universal McCann to get the new service off to a splashy start, despite the timing of its launch in the flat, post-Christmas retail environment, and despite not having the big budget needed for traditional, big-hammer approaches to advertising. Chism’s team decided to focus on key cities, with an eye to the loose demographic of equipment-savvy, tech-friendly information junkies. The intended message: MSN Direct customers get information tailored to their needs, whenever and wherever they want it. The “big idea” behind the campaign: Where possible, Universal McCann wanted to demonstrate the real-time value of the watch, by showcasing its display of real-time information.

The campaign worked as intended, says Microsoft’s Carol Phillips, MSN Direct advertising manager. “We were thrilled with the results,” she says. “We were launching a brand new category and a new product. We had a limited amount of resources. We were delighted with the richness and creativity” of the campaign. In addition to the newspaper ads, the campaign included significant use of outdoor, including space in Times Square that was updated every three days; radio; regional magazines; and online, including use of newspapers’ Web sites, with copy in the watch faces updated four times a day. “It was a broad way to create a lot of buzz,” says Phillips.

The newspaper effort posed special challenges. The Universal McCann team had to persuade the newspapers to guarantee very specific ad placement, in order to make certain the information on the watch face reflected the surrounding editorial copy. And the team had to persuade the newspapers’ in-house ad professionals that they would provide the watch copy in time for production deadlines that were, at best, a few hours away.

Newspapers used included USA Today, 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, says Chism. She calls the effort “very hands-on, labor-intensive. You don’t know what the copy in the watch is going to be” until you have, for example, an early sports score or a news headline to use as its basis.

Chism praises the McCann team that pulled it off, including Madeline Alvarez, associate media director, who lent her oversight, “blocking and tackling where necessary;” Michele Schuh, media supervisor, who stayed late to talk to newspapers; Zach Rubin, account executive, who was a continual presence through the evening sessions. (“He was the sacrificing soul when it came time to make sure these came off smoothly,” Chism said); Nate Able, art director; and Mat Bunnell, copywriter.

The campaign at first was slated for $7 million, but Microsoft upped its ante, says Chism. “We ended up with $11 million because they were so jazzed by it,” she recalls.

“McCann just did a terrific job, and our media partners as well, of being really flexible,” agrees Phillips. “It was one of those things where you cross your fingers and say, ‘Either this is going to be really great or it could be a big liability.’ And it turned out really great.”

Todd Shields is Mediaweek’s Washington editor.