By Poppy Evans

Appeared in "Step by Step Graphics" magazine; Vol. 14, No. 3; May/June 1998

Broadway Video asked for a glossy, glamorous - and typical - promotion. Clare Ultimo talked them into something more effective.

When does a self-promotion demonstrate creative thinking? When it pitches a concept rather than visuals.

This was the conclusion Clare Ultimo came to when she developed an unusual direct mail campaign for the design division of Broadway Video, a New York City video design and production facility. Instead of showcasing the firm's work, she focused on words, selecting a single quote from each of the three designers in the group and mailing the quotes out one at a time in miniature film cans.

The few images used in the campaign were treated as decorative elements and limited to a scant two inches of space – a round label on the lid of each tin. The campaign prompted dozens of requests for demo reels from Fortune 500 companies and executives in advertising, television broadcasting, and film – quite a feat in an industry inundated with promotions from talented individuals.

A conceptual campaign was not what Broadway Video had in mind when design director Sharon Haskell began brainstorming the project with Ultimo's firm (Ultimo Inc. of New York City). "Sharon thought they should have a sophisticated, high-end mailing that was primarily print," says Ultimo. Specifically, Haskell wanted a series of postcard mailings. She and Ultimo even tossed around ideas about the type of imagery that would best suit the postcards. "But I kept thinking we should do a little more research before we offered any answers," Ultimo says.

Keeping The Goal In Mind
Ultimo's reluctance to develop an image-driven print campaign stemmed from two concerns. "Every day we get some kind of postcard in the mail," she says. "Unless it's really unique, we barely look at it." In addition to her fear that a postcard would fail to attract attention was a nagging feeling that print was not the best medium to promote video. "It's a very complex art form," she says. "The translation of video into print is very difficult to do, and more often than not, nobody gets it."

Still, Ultimo didn't want to discount any of Broadway Video's ideas. "I was a designer to designers," she explains. "I wanted to offer Broadway Video any possibilities they seemed interested in because I wanted to treat them exactly as I would want to be treated."

Nevertheless, she decided to try to steer the group (Haskell, photography director Ralph Pitre, and visual effects designer Erik Freeland) in a different direction. Her first step was to address the notion that a self-promotion needed to be a printed piece. "I said, 'Let's stop thinking of this as a piece of paper and think of it as a way to tell people about yourselves,'" she recalls.

From there, Ultimo devised a questionnaire for each member of the design team to fill out. "What we gathered from their answers was, there's a lot more talent and brains there than any one picture could portray," she explains. "From there I knew that the project couldn't be one-dimensional. It needed to represent [a] collection of minds."

Based on this premise, Ultimo began to explore different format and copy approaches. One concept was a mini portfolio containing three pieces, one from each visual artist. Another possibility was a proportion-wheel-style card that would display different images as the wheel was turned. Ultimo also developed a spin-off on Broadway Video's initial idea of a postcard series. "I thought we could possibly take videotape and have paper made from it," says Ultimo. "It would be letterpress printed, and a four-color visual would be tipped on."

When Ultimo presented the comps to Broadway Video, she also showed them a fourth idea: a tiny can with a photo on top, a signature on the bottom, and nothing inside. "At that point, the tin idea wasn't fully developed," she admits. "They saw the tin and examined it and said, 'What are you going to do with this?'" Ultimo recalls. "I said, 'It's a collector's tin - you have a collection of skills.' At that point I figured, at the very least, a tin would be noticed and would not be thrown out."

Are Visuals Necessary?
The idea of promoting the design division by mailing out a tin for each artist in the group appealed to the Broadway Video team. "They said, 'We love it. What more will you do?'" says Ultimo.

Still unsure about what each tin should contain, Ultimo decided to probe the creative psyche of each member of the group by devising another questionnaire with questions such as, "How would you describe your creative process?" Through the answers, Ultimo learned more about each member of the group - and discovered unique capabilities that would have never been apparent by just looking at a portfolio of visual samples. The idea of turning a quote from each designer into a collectable item began to gel.

"We also found out what each artist collects," says Ultimo. "This was pretty revealing and personal and offered us yet another angle." Ultimo decided to promote the three designers by mailing out a tin for each one, containing a quote and information on what they collect, with a fourth tin sent as a follow-up to summarize the group's capabilities.

Ultimo selected quote-worthy sections from the questionnaires and then ran her choices by Broadway Video's design group as well as the marketing department to see if they liked the idea. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The designers had only one request: Although they agreed that Ultimo should use just one quote from each of them, they wanted an opportunity to provide her with more quotes to choose from. "I went in with a tape recorder and interviewed each of them" says Ultimo. "It was even better this time."

Once she had selected a quote from each designer - and Broadway Video had approved the selections - Ultimo started to finalize her design, and she asked each artist to contribute one image. When she told them the images would be printed on circular labels glued on top of the tins, however, they responded with reservation. "They kept saying, 'Our images are never seen in a circular format,'" she says. "I said, 'It might put you in a different perspective in the recipient's mind.' I didn't think that was a bad thing."

The three "designer" tins - each with an ambiguous image on the lid and a thoughtful but unexplained quote on the inside - are intentionally mysterious. Although the label on the bottom of the tin invites recipients to call and ask to see the designer's reel, the promotion is understated and unorthodox: The campaign "sells" the unique thinking of the individual designers, while Broadway Video's name is confined to tiny type.

With the fourth tin, recipients are invited to get involved with the creative process. The label on the lid carries the title Word Play, and inside is a perforated card with 40 words and mathematical symbols that can be combined in various configurations to form inventive "equations" (Dreams + Vision = Talent, for example, or Wisdom - Humor + Pain).

"Since words play a big role in our concept, we decided to let the audience have some fun with them," says Ultimo. "Everyone expected a sales pitch at that point. 'Word Play' was a way to surprise them." The marketing message is minimal to say the least: A label on the inside of the tin summarizes the group's capabilities (title design, commercial production, on-air promotion, and broadcast image and identity development), but recipients need to turn the tin over to and look at the bottom to find Broadway Video's logo and phone number.

Multi-Faceted Production Plan
Once Broadway Video approved comps of the tins and the boxes they were to be mailed in, Ultimo broke down the components of the project and began to put together a production plan.

Each tin required a 4-color label for the lid and two 2-color labels (one on the inside of the tin and the other on the bottom). Another 2-color label was specified for the mailing boxes. The quotes from the designers, printed in black on Chartram vellum and trimmed to 5/8 x 17-inch strips, constituted a separate press run, as did the perforated card for the Word Play tin.

Once these items were printed an trimmed, the job had to be assembled. Labels needed to be glued to the inside and outside of each tin. The printed quotes needed to be coiled like rolls of film and set inside 12,000 tins. Another 4,000 tins would hold the Word Play card which needed to be folded and inserted. Finally, the 2-color label needed to be applied to each box to seal it closed and a mailing label attached.

Because there were so many parts of the project to manage, Ultimo didn't want to broker it out to different suppliers. She felt fortunate when she found a printer willing to handle the complicated job, including fulfillment (Penny Lane in Hempstead, Long Island). The tins were mailed at two-week intervals over an eight-week span.

There's no doubt the success of the pictureless campaign can be attributed, to some extent, to its unusual format. However, the most provocative aspect of this campaign was the human factor - the force behind each artist's work, communicated in a single quote. Expressing creative substance in a subtle, unique way made the difference in penetrating this savvy market.

"I think working with - or for - other design professionals is the best test of your ability to make someone else's message your own," Ultimo says. "When you work with a designer who doesn't work in your medium, it becomes a trip inside another visual mind. I loved this most about working with them."