John Kelly's Washington: Riding the Wave of Progress in Advertising

Jake Robinson is a recent MBA graduate who this summer launched the SeaBoard, a floating digital billboard that advertises everything from local businesses to wedding proposals. Along with his dog Blue and brother Owen, Robinson sets sail off the coast of Ocean City, Md., every day. Video by John Kelly, Edited by Ashley Barnas/The Washington Post
By John Kelly
Monday, August 17, 2009

When Jake Robinson got his MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia two years ago, he could have done as many of his classmates did: put on a suit and tie and a pair of wingtips and become a banker or consultant.

But Jake is not a suit-and-wingtips kind of guy. He is a T-shirt-and-flip-flops kind of guy. Which explains why -- while his classmates are slowly dying from Vitamin D deficiencies -- the 29-year-old eases a custom-built, 72-foot, twin-engine catamaran away from a dock in West Ocean City.

Mounted on the back of the boat are two massive LED billboards, each 14 feet high and 47 feet wide. For the next six hours, Jake and his younger brother, Owen, 26, will go at a leisurely 5.8 knots up and down the Ocean City beach as each sign's 89,600 pixels flash ads for the likes of Miller Lite, Duffy's Tavern and Billy's Subs and Pizza.

Jake grew up in Potomac and spent his summers in O.C. When he was old enough, he began crewing on a sport fishing boat. He'd seen those motorboats that advertised parasailing and Jet Skiing, little white tubs plastered with vinyl signs. He'd seen those airplanes pulling banners advertising outlet malls and all-you-can-eat seafood buffets.

"I just thought it was time to upgrade the technology," he says. As a project for business school, he started thinking of an alternative, something like a floating JumboTron.

On an average summer day, 273,000 people are in Ocean City. Jake figured that about half of them would be on the beach on a typical sunny day. He worked out the details, whipped up a design of the boat, crunched numbers on pricing the ads, then turned in his assignment.

"When my professor asked about investing in it, I thought, 'Wow, maybe I ought to do this!' "

Jake ended up finding two investors closer to home who helped pony up the $1 million it took to construct the custom-designed vessel, the SeaBoard.

"It's pretty cool to watch something go from a concept in paper to a physical form," he says.

Every day since May 22, the SeaBoard has been sailing a couple of hundred feet off shore between the Ocean City inlet and the Delaware line. It makes four passes between 11:20 and 4:40, prime beachgoing time when most beachgoers are absentmindedly gazing off into the blue horizon.

"They say people are most open to advertising when they're bored," Jake says.

Which actually would make Jake and Owen pretty good prospects. Piloting the SeaBoard is mind-numbing work, the monotony broken only by dolphins breaching off the bow and occasional phone calls from people asking how to place a personal ad. It's 50 bucks to flash a birthday wish or a marriage proposal.

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