The extraterrestrial highway Featured

9:49am EDT July 22, 2002

When SBC Advertising wants to communicate with its clients, it sends them to Area 51. Granted, the North Columbus firm’s clients aren’t actually visiting the Nevada military base of extraterrestrial notoriety.

Instead, SBC’s Area 51 is a special section of its Web site created so clients can periodically check on the status of their projects — and offer feedback in a more efficient manner.

For example, on a recent project in which SBC launched a new bank card for The Kroger Co., the firm needed input from the Minneapolis bank issuing the card and from Kroger officials in Columbus and Cleveland.

“We were able to put that creative [project] up on Area 51 and did a live conference call. Everyone was able to look at and comment on the work simultaneously, and when changes needed to be made, everyone was able to view it again in the afternoon,” says Jeff Tritt, SBC’s senior vice president.

The Area 51 process not only saves on travel, SBC and its clients avoid the costs and time involved in producing color copies and sending them via courier or mail. In addition, using Area 51 gives the firm the opportunity to get a product to market sooner because it isn’t waiting so long for feedback.

“We have found it to be just as beneficial to clients in town as clients in Cleveland,” Tritt says. “Our time and their time still is valuable.”

Not top secret

Tritt says the idea for Area 51 was born when SBC noticed clients, in a business world of downsizing, were having to do more things with fewer people.

“Time is a premium item for them,” Tritt says. “They don’t have time to have lethargic meetings talking about minutiae.”

Now, that “minutiae” is handled over the Internet by more than half of SBC’s clients, who visit SBC’s Web site — — click on Area 51, enter their password and choose the project they wish to view. They can print out a copy, make note of desired changes and call, fax or e-mail the information back to SBC.

“We get quicker feedback and more time to work on something without affecting the timeline,” Tritt says.

Clients also gain more flexibility in working with SBC.

“It’s convenient,” says Lisa Dulay, advertising manager at Express-Med, one of SBC’s clients. Express-Med uses SBC to produce direct mail pieces, and each month she visits Area 51 to view new creative work from the advertising firm.

“If we were out of town on a trade show, we could look them up and print them out and take them with us instead of not getting back with them in a timely fashion,” she says.

Area 51 also helps the flow of communication at Express-Med, she says.

“Anyone can go on and look at it at their convenience and not have to wait for somebody else to look at it and pass it on,” she says.

Authorized entry granted

In order to ensure its clients would approve of Area 51, SBC had to design it so it would be easy to use and secure — and fun.

Because SBC already had its own Web site, an in-house programmer simply had to create the Area 51 section. Security parameters, such as code names for client companies and passwords for each employee, alleviate confidentiality concerns for clients.

Here are some steps the firm took to simplify the process for its own staff and its clients:

  • SBC provides clients with written instructions and consults with them one-on-one by phone to make sure they’re comfortable using the site. “Our clients vary in technological aptitude,” Tritt says. “We try to make it very simple for someone who is not far down the line on computer competence.”

  • The firm decided to use a PDF, or portable document format, to transmit the creative pieces, because those files are smaller and easier to download. That format holds the quality and color well so the client gets an accurate portrayal of the firm’s work. The client can zoom in and out of the document on the computer screen to get a better view.

  • SBC account representatives notify clients by phone or e-mail when a new creative piece is posted on the Area 51 site or when revisions are ready. So SBC can keep control of the product quality, clients cannot make changes directly to the creative pieces posted on the site. Instead, they can look at the piece, which appears in color, and either telephone, e-mail or fax comments to SBC.

  • The firm also automated the process internally. Rather than having just one computer expert who can load information onto the site, all creative staff employees can do it for their own clients. “So it’s not like we’re waiting on one person to get it up on this complicated Web site,” Tritt says. “It’s very simple.” So simple, in fact, that it only takes 10 to 15 seconds for someone to post a project to the Area 51 site.

  • To notify clients of the general availability of Area 51 to review project work, SBC sent out press releases. The firm also provided clients using the site with a laminated identification card, complete with password, that resembles a real security badge. “We tried to make it fun for clients who might be intimidated by it,” Tritt says. The badge, in fact, has been the only out-of-pocket cost for the firm.

    “Really, it’s intellectual property. We already had the Web site; we have the server. It’s just increased the functionality,” Tritt says.

    Tritt expects the increased efficiency from Area 51 to both free up time for SBC to work on more client projects and be an attraction for clients to choose the firm in the first place.

    “When it’s easy to get things done through us,” Tritt says, “it’s easier for them to give us more projects.”

    Joan Slattery Wall ( is associate editor of SBN Columbus.