Contractors Take Message To Their People

Former Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen uses sports analogies in ads for Chantilly-based GTSI Inc., a company that sells technology products and services to the federal government.
Former Washington Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen uses sports analogies in ads for Chantilly-based GTSI Inc., a company that sells technology products and services to the federal government. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 28, 2005

In any given week, a million or more WTOP radio listeners might hear a rich baritone voice advertise Lockheed Martin Corp. as the "right choice" to build a $10 billion federal law enforcement communications system because "the bad guys aren't going to take a break while we fix it."

But Lockheed Martin's marketing advisers don't care about the vast majority of that audience. They aren't selling beer or soda pop. Rather, in a peculiarly Washington form of advertising, their hope is that the radio spot might reach the ears of the 50 or so employees at the Treasury, Justice and Homeland Security departments who are going to decide which company should get the communications contract.

If it reaches those people -- or their bosses -- the ad is a success, Lockheed spokesman Scott Lusk said. Limited by federal law in how the company can interact with procurement officials, blanketing the entire region with sometimes jargon-filled ads is one of the ways contractors such as Lockheed try to build momentum for their latest contract proposal among the few federal officials who have authority over it.

Lockheed's ad might be followed on the same station by a pitch from General Dynamics Corp. for its competing proposal, arguing that what the country really needs is a "land mobile radio system that provides nationwide interoperability." Football fans at FedEx Field get to hear L3 Communications pitch its contribution to national defense, while those catching the game on radio might hear former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen offer advice in his distinctive drawl for the best way to handle top-secret information.

"It's very important to get information out to the acquisition board and to the people who will be using this," Lusk said of the ads promoting the company's bid to build a wireless communications network linking federal and local law enforcement officials. "The goal is obviously to win business. Just like Coke or Pepsi does marketing, it's important for us to create awareness about our business."

Advertisements from government contractors have supplanted auto industry ads as the top revenue category for WTOP, the popular news radio outlet, and they have become a staple at its affiliated station, Federal News Radio. They have spread throughout the area's Metro system and are filling air time during local sports broadcasts. Several local trade magazines targeting the industry have seen ad revenue grow by more than 50 percent in just a few years.

Irrelevant and perhaps even indecipherable to many who see or hear them, both marketing and company executives say, the ads make sense in a Washington marketplace where sales strategies are governed by strict federal rules and companies may invest years of work and millions of dollars just preparing a proposal for the most complicated contracts.

A technology company trying to sell a big computer system to an airline, for example, might take the airline's chief information officer out to a fancy dinner or a round of golf to get to know the executive and make a case for the product. Federal contractors are prohibited from that kind of wining and dining -- they can spend up to only $50 per person per year reaching out to government employees. And while contractors spend plenty of time cozying up to federal buyers at industry networking events, government ethics officials are always on the lookout for violations.

Federal sales are also complicated because companies don't always know who is on the decision committee for a given contract. Marketing executives reason that by blanketing the region with an ad, there is a pretty good chance their message will reach some of the officials who have a say in the matter.

"People who buy off these contracts are all over the government, and obviously there's a high population of them in the D.C. area," said Kevin M. Plexico, executive vice president of Input Inc., a Reston market research firm.

The economics of mass advertising for a minuscule target audience might seem out of whack, but Timothy Calkins, an associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said it is probably a good business decision.

"If you have a customer who is going to make a decision on a billion-dollar contract, is it worth it to spend $10,000 on an ad to reach that one person? Perhaps, even if you're going to catch a lot of other people in the spray," Calkins said. "It's because that person is so valuable."

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