CAMPAIGN DIRECT: Issue - Dotcom Advertising - Working hard to keep Virgin Net ahead of the pack. Archibald Ingall Stretton fell on its feet with its first client and set the pace for dotcom ads. By Kate Dale

Remember life before the dotcoms when a client list wasn’t peppered with full stops and lower-case initials? Today dotcom business is so plentiful that it’s harder not to have one on your client list than to have one.

Remember life before the dotcoms when a client list wasn’t peppered

with full stops and lower-case initials? Today dotcom business is so

plentiful that it’s harder not to have one on your client list than to

have one.

So it was somewhat prescient of Archibald Ingall Stretton to sign up an

internet company as its first client in the summer of 1998 before it had

even started trading. The campaign for Virgin Net went live on the same

day as the agency launched. When there is the saying that your first

client defines the sort of agency you become, AIS was either very lucky

or very switched on.

AIS’s managing partner, Jon Ingall, says: ’Virgin Net was either very

stupid or very brave to hire us.’ Maybe so, but the decision has proved

successful. Virgin Net has built a strong brand, changed its core

business and recruited 1.4 million customers in just three years. It has

become, according to its head of marketing, Jo Peat, ’the UK’s only

dedicated leisure and entertainment site. It blends information and

e-commerce - so you can go online to find out where your favourite group

is playing and then book the tickets.’

Virgin Net started life as an internet service provider. AIS’s first

campaign for the company - launched in October 1998 - was a subscriber

recruitment drive designed to encourage more people to send off for the

CD-Rom, which would hook them up to the net. The ISP market became

driven by price and the launch of Dixons’ Freeserve changed the sector


’That’s what makes this industry so exciting,’ Peat says. ’You can never

write a six-month plan because things are always changing.’

So Virgin Net changed tack. Instead of making money by giving customers

access to the web, it decided to pursue profits by persuading them to

spend more time on just one website -

The site concentrates on traditional Virgin territory - movies, music,

travel and shopping. The challenge facing AIS now is how to build a

strong, clear brand that stands from the dotcom clutter. It not only has

to make the Virgin URL memorable, it has to give users an idea of what

they will find.

What makes the challenge particularly tough is that the people Virgin

Net is targeting - people who enjoy going out - are, by definition,

difficult to reach through traditional media. ’They have active social

lives, they don’t sit in front of the TV for 15 hours a day,’ Ingall

says. The average age of the target market is 33 but Virgin Net research

revealed that older people are among the heaviest users. The target

audience has a high disposable income and little time.

The proposition - making the most of your free time - is used across the

entire campaign, which was launched last September and has had pounds 4

million spent on it so far. Ingall says: ’A key to successful

integration is creating a strong, central proposition that all the

creative work can hang off, whether it’s a cinema ad or a toilet door


The agency’s creative partner, Steve Stretton, agrees and believes the

work and its results are testimony to the power of this approach. ’It’s

really nice to see something happening the way it should happen,’ he


’It wasn’t a case of ’let’s do an ad and see what develops’.’

The creative team developed a look and tone of voice. ’Much of the work

around is dry, messy and confused; ours has to be challenging and

witty,’ Stretton says.

The cinema ad best sums up the Virgin Net approach. A clean-shaven,

good-looking convict is released from prison. As his friend drives him

away in an open-top car, he lists the things he wants now he is free.

This includes a suite at a top hotel, 200 red roses, a night at the

opera in Covent Garden, steaming hotpot and ’My darling Suzy, yes, I

want my own darling Suzy’. The camera focuses on his friend’s hand - the

knuckles of which are tattooed with the name Suzy.

The mood of the ad is atmospheric and the punchline is subtle and

restrained. The thoughtful sense of humour is carried through into the

posters which exhort people to do more with their leisure time, carrying

slogans such as ’delay becoming your parents’ and ’don’t rely on

reincarnation’. Media-specific slogans have also been created. ’Don’t be

one of life’s passengers,’ a bus-side ad pleads. (’They wouldn’t let us

use one we really wanted - ’because you may get run over by a bus

tomorrow’,’ Stretton laments.) Ambient media - cubicle doors in All Bar

One toilets and NatWest cash till receipts - take a similar approach.

All printed media has the Virgin Net URL printed in the middle, and not

in the corner like most URLs.

’Cinema advertising was a clear winner for us,’ Ingall explains. ’Not

only does it link into one of the core elements of the product, there is

also a strong correlation between people who go to the pictures and

pursue other activities.’ Virgin Net was the first dotcom to use


’We’re still the heaviest user,’ Peat says. She makes a similar claim

for bus-sides - another medium favoured strongly by the dotcoms but

pioneered by Virgin Net.

Online marketing includes partnership agreements with search engines

such as Yahoo!, MSN and Ask Jeeves, and a successful viral e-mail


’We e-mailed 25 people and told them we were giving away 20,000 cinema

tickets,’ Peat says. ’Within two hours all the tickets had gone.’ Weekly

newsletters are e-mailed out to all subscribers and there are plans to

make these more personalised. The company eschews the banner ad approach

to online marketing.

’It’s about using the net in a clever and innovative way,’ Peat


Ingall agrees consistency is as important here as it is offline. ’Many

companies look different online. You have to integrate all

communications to build trust.’

Ingall believes the measurable nature of the internet makes it the

purest form of direct marketing. ’You can track the number of page

impressions and find out immediately what effect your activity is

having,’ Ingall says. AIS and Virgin Net are also conducting qualitative

research online and offline. Awareness of the brand has risen threefold,

while the latest ABC Electronic figures reveal a 500,000 rise from

900,000 visitors in September 1999 to 1.4 million in January.

Virgin Net wants to build on this growth. ’We have a massive advantage

over newer dotcoms because we’ve been learning how to do this for two

years,’ Ingall says. But Stretton believes they’re catching up. ’There’s

a lot of good-quality creative in the www. world now,’ he says. ’That’s

why we have to keep the work as fresh, simple and challenging as

possible - because the competition has got better.’