Sunday, December 29, 2002

Digital tool helps agency
sculpt products' appeal

Northlich unit finds niche in marketing world

By Cliff Peale
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In conference rooms overlooking Fourth Street downtown, the newest versions of Kellogg's Pop Tarts and Campbell's Soup are taking shape. There, creative types at BrandStorm, the fast-growing unit of the Northlich advertising agency, dream up new ways to create, design and package the favorites found on store shelves everyday.

Managing director of Brandstorm Jeffrey Dufresne, left, and digital designer Reg Crutche, with members of company staff.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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And with a new digital tool called DigiLab, they do it right on the computer screen and all in real time.

It's the newest innovation from BrandStorm, which doesn't contribute a bulk of the sales at Northlich but is the avenue into big-name product development for the Tristate's largest advertising agency.

Clients including Kellogg's, Discover Financial Services, Procter & Gamble and Calphalon cookware have dotted the BrandStorm client list. It's the kind of business that agency managers covet, because it brings prestige and creative talent - not to mention money - into the region.

Northlich officials wouldn't reveal sales or profit numbers. But they said BrandStorm revenue has tripled in the current quarter, compared with the same period a year ago, even as the number of product-development accounts from flagship client P&G have declined in the past several years.

That comes in a stagnant advertising market. In the 2001 fiscal year, for example, Northlich saw its billings drop 20 percent and cut its staff in half.

But BrandStorm has steadily built the blue-chip roster, bolstered by the P&G business. That in turn has pushed the company to develop a series of tools, some highly technical and some old-fashioned brainstorming around a conference table, to help clients develop new products.

Others include a library of thousands of pictures and music to promote brainstorming, and an online software package called IdeaSpring, which helps clients build a database of new-product ideas.

Among the results: Kellogg's Snak Stix, aimed squarely at teenagers, and a key chain that holds its own Discover Card, called Discover 2Go. That invention was rated one of the top new products of 2002 by Business Week magazine.

And there are plenty of newer clients, including Sara Lee Foods.

"Technology is great, and people get excited about technology," said Jeff Dufresne, a P&G veteran who now is managing director of BrandStorm. "We take the technical things, and we turn it into generating pragmatic results. ... We've put some tools into place that can really accelerate the brand-development process."

Jerry Kathman, president of local design firm Libby Perszyk Kathman, said Northlich has hit a niche with its stable of online products. LPK also has done well, with about $23 million in sales this year and a similar blue-chip roster of clients.

"Everybody's out there with new ideas trying to get clients," Mr. Kathman said. "They (Northlich) have been very successful with this cluster of products, and that's how they've broken out of the pack."

The newest product is DigiLab, which got its first test in early November with a 3-day session for a P&G brand that Mr. Dufresne would not identify.

DigiLab can cut the product development process from eight to 12 weeks with one of those sessions, Mr. Dufresne said.

Participants join either online or by conference call. Using a digital platform, a sketcher puts ideas on the screen for all to see. A modeler then works in three dimensions, creating a real-world product that participants can change, shape or redesign in one conversation.

Mr. Dufresne said the program gives BrandStorm an edge on its major competitors, but he acknowledged that it wouldn't last more than a year. He's trying to put DigiLab in a package that customers can buy or import into their own computer network.

"This could really help accelerate our momentum," he said.


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