Killer apps Featured

7:46am EDT April 30, 2002
Blattner Brunner has always been an ad agency a bit on the edge. In the early to mid-1990s, it touted itself as the home of the "Killer Bees."

Its current home at 11 Stanwix St., the former Westinghouse Building in Gateway Center, brandishes a no-less-daring countenance with its coffee bars, open meeting spaces with lemon walls, TV monitors in the hallways and molded plastic furniture cast in bold hues in common areas.

Perforated stainless steel kick panels on the stairways contrast with the speckled black rubber floor covering fabricated from recycled tires.

Ad agencies, we might think, are populated largely by offbeat types who run counter to established rules and conventions, decidedly right-brain types, intuitive and subjective thinkers who make big mental leaps in the chaotic process of creating ad campaigns, brand identities and catchphrases. In some ways technology, a product mostly of left-brain thinking, seems unconnected to the seemingly undisciplined creative processes that one would expect at our mental model of an ad agency.

Yet the agency launched in 1989 by Joe Blattner, its chairman, and Mike Brunner, president, now with 110 employees and 2001 billings of $125 million, has from the outset embraced technology as a key part of its strategy for growth and success, striving to connect the left and right brains to come up with a better result for its clients, the agency and its employees. Much of that strategy came out of the realization that there was no shortage of ad agencies vying for clients, and that if it were to survive and thrive, Blattner Brunner need ed to run not with but away from the pack.

"When we launched our brand, Blattner Brunner, in 1989, at that time we looked at our industry and felt if we were going to really be able to grow a brand and grow it to a national level, we probably (would) have to do things a little differently than the industry approached it," says Brunner.

"No one was waiting for another agency."

Brunner and his partner decided that applying technology to advertising and marketing was one way to differentiate their agency from the rest. At that time, the ad industry had yet to adapt technology on a large scale and use it for applications such as databases and direct marketing.

"We looked at some of those things and made the decision that if other agencies weren't interested in them that maybe we should make it our business to be interested in them," says Brunner. "We decided to put technology and marketing together. It seemed like a logical step for us."

So in the early 1990s, Blattner Brunner acquired High Technology Associates, a firm with strengths in direct and database marketing, to jumpstart its marriage of marketing and technology. In 1997, it purchased Lighthouse Systems -- later Lighthouse Interactive -- a local firm offering Web site development, e-business strategy development, online marketing and advertising.

Managing the knowledge

About two years ago, says Brunner, the agency began to consider ways to implement a system to integrate its external and internal activities, making the massive amounts of information it collects more accessible to clients and employees.

An ad agency handles multiple projects simultaneously. Teams and individuals move in and out of the process, budgets must be managed and there are frequent interactions with clients for reviews and approvals. That's on top of managing internal systems such as finances and human resources.

Blattner Brunner was looking for a way to make the entire process smoother and more efficient.

From a technology standpoint, they were seeking a knowledge management system, one the Knowledge Management Research Center, a professional organization for chief information officers and publisher of CIO magazine, defines as "the process through which organizations generate value from their intellectual and knowledge-based assets."

The problem is that much of the information and knowledge resides in the heads of employees or is otherwise unorganized and not easily accessed or distributed. With turnover, much of it walks out the door when a worker leaves.

When knowledge is stored, it's usually in desk drawers or cabinets. When it's transported, it's typically pushed around from desk to desk in stacks of paper.

"Eighty percent of corporate data is unstructured, so the major hurdle for most organizations is access -- how to identify, collect, store, publish and distribute the right information to the right people at the right time," says Angela Llamas-Butler, president of Delta System Designs Inc., a developer of knowledge management systems.

All that disintegration creates problems, particularly for an organization that relies heavily on information and its human assets to deliver service to customers.

"Knowledge is in an organization but nobody knows how to use it or get at it," says Thom Palmer, senior knowledge consultant for i2, a North Side-based knowledge management consultant.

Palmer says companies start to think about knowledge management when problems with handling information lead to business problems. Often, those problems are procedural, such as poor customer service, faulty logistics or billing errors.

Palmer uses as an example a software development company with a team dedicated to producing technical materials for its product. A client services team that relies on a development team for most of its information wants to produce content for the corporate Web site. But it doesn't have a system for communicating with the development team to make sure content is updated.

Client services lags behind the development team, and confusion ensues. Customers find information on the Web site conflicts with what they are receiving from the software developers.

Blattner Brunner came up with a system called DaVinci, a corporate intranet that allows everyone in the company to access the information needed to manage projects and to keep information about them up-to-date. It provides internal communications for employees as well. The system operates on a Microsoft platform that integrated the agency's other systems rather than replacing those already in use.

Now, managers can call up individual projects and check on their progress. They can see who is working on a project and monitor its budget, see how close it is to completion and respond, if necessary, to keep it on target.

Team members can update documents and prompt the system to send e-mail to other employees or clients every time a change is made. They can also subscribe so that each time a change is made, they receive an e-mail.

Clients can review and approve projects online. Employees can access information about their 401(k) and health plans, get company updates and news or access the help desk. DaVinci is tied into the accounting system, so information that once took several days to access can now be unearthed in seconds.

"Now instead of two- or three-day-old information, we get up-to-the-minute information. It's real time," says Rick Gardinier, Blattner Brunner's vice president, interactive development.

Serving a business purpose

Blattner Brunner decided that any system it was to implement had to serve the needs of its clients and employees. The technology, as it turns out, isn't a huge obstacle. The biggest hurdle is creating an architecture that fits the organizational culture and serves the needs of the business, making sure the technology is the servant and not the taskmaster.

"The technology by itself a lot of companies can implement," says Gardinier. "It's not real hard to get a package up and running. The hard part is really thinking through what your business challenges are and then how to customize it for your environment without getting sidetracked, because there's so much you can do with it."

The key, the experts say, is to ensure that the system addresses the core needs of the business. Palmer suggests companies structure their knowledge management efforts around a business driver, such as improved customer service, a gain in market share or enhanced profitability, and not simply adopt technology for its own sake.

"The exchange of information among employees, departments and even other companies throughout the supply chain must happen within the context of an overarching business goal," says Llamas-Butler.

The inside sell

No system, no matter how good or sophisticated, will be an improvement if people don't know how to use it. Employees must be willing to share what they know, and some organizations find that their workers hoard knowledge because they believe it provides job security. Palmer says the opposite is true.

"Keeping what they know to themselves does not protect their jobs," says Palmer.

Instead, the shared knowledge has a leveraging effect, allowing others to use it to improve their collective performance. The result is that the entire company can be more successful, in theory, at least, creating more job security.

The agency used a number of tactics to create a knowledge management system that employees would use and clients would feel comfortable with.

Blattner Brunner ran pilots with an early adopter group, employees comfortable with technology and likely to accept new applications, to get their feedback. They chose another group whose exposure to technology on a day-to-day basis was limited, "the folks who barely turn on their e-mail," as Brunner describes them.

To prepare for the companywide introduction of DaVinci, Blattner Brunner turned its creativity on itself in an intensive internal campaign, with ads everywhere from the coffee bar to the restrooms. They devised an online game with prizes to get employees familiar with the system. The kickoff meeting was structured as a press conference, where employees learned how the system was going to work.

The human factor, it turns out, is the most important one for a successful knowledge management system. Human interaction with technology creates, changes and uses the content to increase productivity and efficiency.

Blattner Brunner realized the best technology, no matter how sophisticated, would be of little value without the human involvement necessary to make the wheels turn at top speed.

"This really is about people and processes," says Palmer. "Technology is a great enabler, but it's just a tool."

In Blattner Brunner's case, a tool to let the left brain and the right brain know what the other is doing. How to reach: Blattner Brunner, www.blattnerbrunner.com; i2, www.isqrd.com; Delta System Designs, www.dsd.com; Knowledge Management Research Center, www.cio.com