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Start-up Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002

MudAdvertising.com’s offices are, well, rather clean. And like a lot of things in the world of cyberspace, they’re a little indefinite.

MudAdvertising.com is a spin-off of advertising and public relations agency Elisco Advertising, and the office of one of Pittsburgh’s newest dot-com businesses is sharing space with its parent company, at least for now, in its Cigar Factory offices in the Strip District. As a matter of fact, MudAdvertising.com shares a lot with Elisco Advertising.

John Elisco, son of Ben Elisco, the parent agency’s principal, holds the title of “big cheese” (no kidding, it’s right there on his business card). For now, the human resources to run MudAdvertising are coming from Elisco Advertising.

But what really counts in e-commerce, where the rubber meets the muddy road, is that MudAdvertising has its own home on the Web at MudAdvertising.com.

MudAdvertising.com’s operating principle is simple. Clients who don’t have the budget or the need to enlist a full-service agency and all of the gingerbread that goes with it — the lunches, the strategy meetings, the account service — can tap into MudAdvertising.com and handle their advertising and public relations projects from the comfort of their computer workstations.

Ben Elisco says he pondered the notion of a menu-driven “value” agency back when the Internet was simply a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. He envisioned an agency where clients could order services a la carte instead of having to enlist the full services of an agency — and all of the expenses that go with it.

The idea lay fallow until technology and the new economy stepped in. Elisco Advertising’s experience working with pghlive.com, says John Elisco, also fueled the idea.

John Elisco says that the agency’s meetings with prospective clients revealed that many were either too cash-strapped to afford a full-service agency or they just didn’t want to spend the money. Recently, the agency has begun to see more technology companies whose managers know where their target market is, but need creative talent to produce their press releases, print ads, brochures and the like.

Both the opportunity and the problem that MudAdvertising’s founders saw was that while companies were unwilling or unable to pay the freight for a full-load agency, the work was out there. In today’s economy, start-ups often become multimillion-dollar companies in a wink and overnight find a need for a full-service agency. Getting first crack at a new venture can give Elisco Advertising a leg up on the competition when start-ups find themselves in need of a higher level of service.

Now, technology is making it possible to deliver higher levels of service on the Internet. On MudAdvertising’s Web site, it’s possible to complete an entire project, from rough concept to final product, conceivably without picking up a telephone or meeting with a human being.

John Elisco says that, while MudAdvertising can remain an option for clients as long as they prefer, a key part of the strategy is to convert some clients to the higher level of services that Elisco Advertising offers.

“That’s the plan,” says Elisco. “We really want that to happen, that Mud will become a feeder system.”

Bill McLay, president of IPC Supply Inc., an Anderson, S.C.-based dealer and distributor of cleaning supplies for commercial buildings, is a MudAdvertising client who has done business with Elisco Advertising for several years. He developed the relationship while living and working in Pittsburgh.

Recently, Elisco and McLay more often communicated via the exchange of electronic files of creative work, so McLay says he already is used to the notion of doing projects over the Internet.

Says McLay: “It’s just like twist licorice — it’s great.”

Nancy Mosser, who owns Nancy Mosser Casting, a downtown casting company that provides talent for the advertising and entertainment industry, is using MudAdvertising to produce a new corporate image. Mosser says she made the decision based largely on Elisco Advertising’s reputation, and because a large agency would have been too expensive.

She also likes the idea of getting work done quickly. Her corporate identity, for instance, is scheduled for a 30-day turnaround. Her one reservation is how well the creative process will work without any face-to-face interaction.

Elisco sees MudAdvertising as a service for other than simply small clients. He views it as an option for other agencies and corporate public relations and marketing departments that get crushed by their workloads and need outside help.

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.

MudAdvertising at a glance

Operations

MudAdvertising operates a Web site that offers anyone with Internet access the ability to order a project and see it through to its completion. If a client wants a press release, he or she can log onto the site with a password and e-mail address and order a service.

MudAdvertising will work up a production schedule to meet the client’s needs

The client fills out a creative map, a document that gathers information needed to complete the project. The MudAdvertising staff puts together two rough concepts and posts them on the client’s site.

Once a concept is selected, revised and approved, the layout is completed and posted for review. After the final version is approved and payment is received, a digital copy is delivered on disk, CD or by e-mail.

John Elisco heads the agency full-time, and has three creative employees on a part-time basis. MudAdvertising also is recruiting writers around the United States to complete online work for its clients.

Market outlook

Who knows, since there aren’t any models that it can be directly compared to. But assuming that it remains cost-effective and clients are pleased with the work, the concept could take off.

Internet analysts expect e-commerce to exceed $1 trillion by 2002, up from just $22 billion in 1997, according to ActiveMedia, a Peterborough, N.H., research firm. Businesses looking for professional work without all of the bells and whistles that accompany a full-service agency or large clients who need project work completed could find an online agency the way to go.

Sales and marketing strategy

With little promotion, MudAdvertising’s Web site purportedly got 4,000 hits a day on its site in February, many from the West Coast, says Elisco. The agency is using direct mail and print ads, as well as banners on SiliconValley.com, operated by the San Jose Mercury News, and on PittsburghLive.com.

It also uses outdoor advertising, including a billboard on Smallman Street near its offices, and Elisco says the agency is considering transit ads on PAT buses and an outdoor ad near Carnegie Mellon University.

Financing

Elisco won’t provide a lot of detail, but MudAdvertising was launched with about 400 hours of human resources from Elisco Advertising. The rest of its costs were for legal fees for trademarking, hosting, back-end development of the Web site and Internet access.

Sales to date

MudAdvertising is projecting modest revenue of about $250,000 for 2000. But with e-commerce growing at a breakneck pace, especially in the business-to-business segment, and less reluctance to do business over the Internet in the face of the advantages, that figure could be more conservative than Pat Buchanan.

Greatest challenge

Elisco and his father do expect some resistance to the concept, simply because it’s new — and Web-based. One prospect called the idea “too far out for us,” according to Elisco. But McLay sees no reason why younger and computer-savvy individuals would have any reluctance to use the service.

And while he’s enthusiastic about the venture, John Elisco views MudAdvertising as anything but a no-brainer. He knows that the bottom line for any agency is how well it delivers its product to its customers, and that the concept can certainly be copied. And it’s going to take some time for prospects to get accustomed to the notion of doing their creative online.

“Our biggest obstacle is that this is a completely new category,” says Elisco, “and our biggest challenge is to educate our end-users.”

How to reach: MudAdvertising, mudadvertising.com; SiliconValley.com, www.mercurycenter.com; Pittsburgh Live, www.pittsburghlive.com