On a Winning Streak
When it comes to staking out Web territory, Mark DiMassimo didn’t exactly have first-mover status. Up until a year ago, the 37-year-old founder of New York’s DiMassimo Brand Advertising wasn’t particularly interested in the Internet. A year ago, only 5 percent of his company’s billings came from dot com accounts.
“My attitude then, “ he recalls, “was ‘What’s all the fuss about?’”
Today, much of the fuss is about his 37-person ad agency, which so far this year has landed three Internet accounts- SmartMoney.com, Kozmo.com, and edu.com- worth more than $40 million, and recently added another two whose identities he declined to disclose. As a result, he expects dot coms to compromise more than 70 percent of 1999 billings, estimated to top $60 million, compared with 1998’s $25 million.
So how did DiMassimo go from Net no-show to hot dot-commodity? According to DiMassimo and his clients, it’s a combination of irreverence, prestigious offline experience- prior to founding DiMassimo in 1996, he worked at several agencies- and more irreverence.
Like many in advertising, DiMassimo has played agency hopscotch. After majoring in social science in college, he tried the life of a professional musician before staking his creative efforts on copywriting. (Today, he plays the drums to brainstorm.) After stints at BBDO and J. Walker Thompson, he moved to Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, a firm that appealed to DiMassimo because it took chances. Kirshenbaum, for instance, had created the campaign for No Excuses jeans, hiring Donna Rice, the Money Business shipmate of former presidential candidate Gary Hart, to be its first spokesperson.
That approach matched DiMassimo’s own penchant for flouting convention, which stems in part from his religious background. He’s not just an ex-Catholic, he’s a practicing ex-Catholic. “I find that among ex-Catholics there’s a certain kind of dark, irreverent humor, because if you’re Catholic, and you’re irreverent, that’s sacrilege,” he says. “It’s a pretty serious thing to be irreverent about religious principals, so when you make that move as a Catholic, you commit to it. It affects you deep down.”
At Kirshenbaum, he eventually became creative director, where that commitment was reflected in the Citibank AAdvantage card campaign, in which one of the ads shows an engagement ring on a finger and reads, “Was it love, or was it the miles?”
In 1996, DiMassimo decided to start his own firm; one that would blend creative with direct marketing. Having worked in direct marketing during his early agency years, DiMassimo says he sensed a gap in coverage. Companies launching new brands needed an agency that understood not only how to create brand awareness, but also how to reach consumers one-on-one.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that he realized the interactive Internet was the ultimate way to integrate the two. From that point, DiMassimo went after Internet firms “with a vengeance,” as he put it, by emphasizing his direct marketing and creative experience, and the irreverence that since has been revealed in campaigns for Kozmo and edu.com.
DiMassimo says that early on in this corporate makeover he learned a lesson in dealing with Internet companies. In the traditional advertising world, agencies are known by their work. Even if it’s a bad company, the good work will stand out, he contends. But on the Internet, your dot com clients’ identities also play a role. It’s not quite, “You are what you eat,” but more, “You are who feeds you.”
Says DiMassimo: “You’re known by your clients, and you’ll be positioned very quickly by whom you work with.”
Taking this advice, DiMassimo now finds himself interviewing potential clients as if he were investigating in the Internet firms. He spends most of his initial meetings with prospective clients asking questions: What’s your business model? Who are your strategic partners? Who’s your competition? Where did you get your money? What’s your budget?
“I have to interview and it’s not because of arrogance,” DiMassimo explains. “There’s so much of this kind of work chasing agencies that if people realize you’re in this business, you’ll be inundated with suitors in this area. My advice is: Be polite, but don’t waste more than 30 seconds on the phone with anybody who doesn’t have money. You can’t help that person. Also, learn to say no to people who have money but the wrong business plan.”
DiMassimo’s belief that your current Internet company lineup influences potential clients isn’t universally shared, even by his clients. During SmartMoney.com’s short agency review- it lasted only three weeks- the company wasn’t hung up on finding an agency with an Internet track record, says Peter Jurew, general manager of SmartMoney.com. In fact, he adds, some agencies with extensive Internet work have produced lousy campaigns, something he attributes to the current market in which Internet accounts can be plucked like low-hanging fruit.
“There are agencies who are so busy that they’re not going to really change or try and reinvent themselves,” says Jurew. “They’re sticking with what they’re doing because they’re getting so much work. So we saw agencies who were good, but nothing that knocked us out. Their stuff was the stuff you see all over the place.”
SmartMoney narrowed the list to four before choosing DiMassimo; a decision Jurew says was based on the agencies penchant for irreverence, its direct marketing experience, and on DiMassimo’s work at Kirshenbaum.
How Irreverent is DiMassimo? He doesn’t go for the Outpost.com approach, the gratuitously irreverent commercial in which mice are shot out of a cannon against a brick wall and viewers are told to send complaints to Outpost.com. Instead, he strives for relevant irreverence. Some of the firm’s work for shopping and delivery site Kozmo.com is brassy bordering on vulgar, but it calls for readers to buy a product, not register complaints. For instance, DiMassimo placed Kozmo posters in bar restrooms. The ad in the men’s room reads: “That girl’s a bitch. Why don’t you go home and rent a movie?”
DiMassimo explains, “You’re in a bar, talking to some girl, and you’re getting nowhere, and then you go into the bathroom and see this sign.”
Edu.com radio spots, meanwhile, brazenly make the point that the site is for students only. The campaign uses respected figures such as a nun or a police officer to rudely explain how they are not welcome at edu.com. In one, an announcer details the daring exploits of Officer Hanrahan then states, “We couldn’t give a rat’s ass” about Hanrahan because he’s not a student.
Popular with students, the campaign was what edu.com expected from DiMassimo, says Rob Levinson, edu.com’s director of marketing communications. “Mark had an edgy quality,” he says. “He understood how to approach our market and we’re in the college space, which is even more irreverent that the rest if the Internet space.”
One thing the edu.com spots don’t do, DiMassimo notes, is explain too much- a continual problem among Internet companies. Many Internet firms are introducing entirely new products or business models and their executives are often frustrated that consumers don’t understand exactly what they do. So they become fixated on the idea that they should explain it all in their advertising. This preoccupation, DiMassimo argues, leads to misguided expenditures of time and money.
“It doesn’t matter if people understand what you do, or how you do what you do. What matters is, are people buying your product or service?” he says. “I try to get my clients out of the explaining business, which is usually a frustrating, expensive, and fruitless business in advertising, and get them into the attraction business, attracting people to their sites and learning who they are.”
It’s a preoccupation DiMassimo essentially mocks in the non-restroom potion of the Kozmo campaign. Kozmo promises to deliver orders in less than an hour, which seems an almost ludicrous boast. Naturally, consumers are keen to know who it intends to achieve this, and DiMassimo built an outdoor radio and TV campaign based on explaining the process. The catch is, the ads lie. Rocket skates, turbo go-karts, and a delivery boy shot out of a cannon are all used to describe Kozmo’s impossible mission.
This offbeat, impious approach seems particularly well suited to young Internet firms and their youthful target markets, and the willingness of Net firms to push the envelope make them fun to work with, says DiMassimo. Then again, he notes, they can be also unusually demanding, preoccupied with quick results, and more volatile than offline clients. “They can be,” he says, half-laughing, “a pain in the ass to work with.”
In some quarters, that type of comment might put people off. But on the Internet, it appears to be a rather winning approach.