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ADding a partner Featured

11:03am EDT March 28, 2002
Paul Ramsdell relates an experience he had while handling marketing for the former Vista International Hotel, later the Doubletree, and now the Westin Convention Center.Several key hotel management personnel engaged in a brainstorming session to figure out ways to attract more senior citizens as guests and fill some of the excess weekend vacancies the Vista was experiencing. They considered draws like free drinks, half-price rooms and free parking. The potential price tag of some of the schemes could have cut rather deeply into the hotel's profits.Ultimately, after some research, they found that offering big economic incentives wasn't necessarily the best tactic."You know what they wanted?" Ramsdell says. "A free cup of coffee and a newspaper."The hotel had mulled over offering substantial enticements to reach members of its target audience, only to find that it wouldn't take much to attract them. It would have been easy to miss the mark and squander a lot of precious marketing dollars in the process.The anecdote highlights a quandary that every business faces when it comes to identifying and hitting its mark: How do you find out what motivates your audience to buy your product or service?Ramsdell, now vice president of AD 1 Partners, and Mariellen Garman, its president, believe they've got a better way to help their clients do it in ProFound, an alliance they formed with Decision Partners, a Pittsburgh-based research firm.AD 1 Partners has built a substantial business around serving the hospitality industry, principally through work for hotel clients. When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought the travel industry to a near halt last fall, Garman and Ramsdell knew the fallout would have an effect on their business. Concurrently, the couple was trying to decide in which direction they wanted to take AD 1 Partners in the long term."We were going through a period when we were beginning to decide what our highest and best purpose was," says Garman.AD 1 Partners had done some public relations work as well, but Garman and Ramsdell committed to building a more substantial public relations practice by adding a public relations specialist to complement the advertising and graphic design work. Another tactic has been to sketch out ideas for some clients and allow them to do more of the work on projects themselves. For instance, AD 1 Partners might provide copy for an ad or brochure and suggest to clients that they purchase artwork or photography and assemble the final piece themselves.Another part of the solution came in the form of an alliance with a fellow tenant in their building. Gordon Butte, president of Decision Partners, maintained offices on the same floor as AD 1 Partners."We just got to know each other as floor neighbors," says Butte.Butte, who spent a number of years working in communications in the chemical industry, including stints with Bayer Corp. and Dow Chemical, had been looking for a way to leverage his firm's expertise for growth."What had been on our minds for some time was being able to grow by having these kinds of alliances and putting this know-how to work in a variety of fields," says Butte.Butte's firm does what he describes as decision research and strategy. The tools Decision Partners uses developed out of research at Carnegie Mellon University are designed to not simply measure attitudes, preferences and beliefs but to get at the underlying rationale for them.Decision Partners gathers information from its client and other sources and prepares what Butte calls an expert model, comprising all of the information that the client believes is available and relevant about the issue, including what they think consumers or clients ought to know about their product or service and what they believe people's attitudes and knowledge are about the subject.Researchers conduct in-depth, one-on-one discussions by telephone with the client's customers or target audience in sessions ranging from 40 minutes to several hours, using techniques designed to reveal the full range of their subjects' beliefs and attitudes. Drawing on the researchers' interviews, a "mental model" is constructed that describes what the researchers determine are the actual attitudes and depth of knowledge and understanding of the individuals in the study.They then analyze the difference between the expert model and the mental model and formulate communications strategies to bridge the gap. For example, hotel management might believe that name awareness is a problem, yet discover that the real obstacle is a perception that the hotel is more expensive than others or is difficult to reach from the airport.Butte did some research work for AD 1, and the agency gained valuable insights about how its clients perceived it. The pair found that clients viewed the firm as easy to work with. They also found that some of the consultative work they did for clients in the course of projects had real value, yet they weren't charging for it."We were ending up being unpaid consultants," says Ramsdell.A client in common Decision Partners and AD 1 Partners discovered last year that they were doing work for a mutual client, Hours To You, a personal shopping service in New Castle. Hours To You, which provides home delivery of groceries and other items, wanted to expand its business and was working with AD 1 Partners to come up with a marketing strategy.Separately, Decision Partners was working with Hours To You to identify its prime prospects. All three parties huddled and decided it would make sense if they worked together, with Butte's firm doing the research and then sharing its findings with AD 1 to come up with a communication strategy for Hours To You.The research revealed some interesting results. While all had assumed that the most likely customer for Hours To You would be a professional woman with a busy work schedule, they found that a young stay-at-home mother who wanted to avoid the hassle of shopping with a couple of kids in tow was a more likely candidate."Our ads and our materials probably would have shown a woman in a business suit with a briefcase in one hand and a bag of groceries in the other," says Garman.Instead, they feature a woman with a baby and a toddler greeting an Hours To You delivery person.For Decision Partners, the alliance with AD 1 Partners provides exposure to clients that are likely to see the value in its service. For AD 1 Partners, says Garman, ProFound is a value-added that the agency can offer either as part of a larger package or on a standalone basis and a calling card that could pique a potential client's interest.Says Garman:"This is a real viable way for a small agency like us to get in the door."

Decision Partners