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Riding the Wave of Progress in Advertising

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.

"It blows my mind how many people call and think it's a free service," Jake says.

When the boat gets close to 58th Street, Jake sits at his laptop and fires up a message that a customer phoned in earlier: "Amanda Fitzwilliam, will you marry me? Love, Vince."

A cheer goes up from the beach as Vince's proposal pops up on the billboard. Jake has a pair of binoculars up to his eyes and can see the couple hugging and kissing. Apparently, Amanda said yes.

Two teenage boys floating just beyond the breakers start screaming and smacking their palms against the water: "Don't do it!" they shout. "Don't get married!"

Napping on the floor of the SeaBoard's enclosed, air-conditioned cabin is Jake's 10-year-old mutt, Blue. Occasionally, Blue stirs from his slumber and snaps at a fly buzzing past. When Jake leaves the cabin to smoke a Camel Light, Blue trots out with him.

Sometimes Blue sits on the deck and watches the beach slide past. Here is what he sees: a fat man up to his knees in the water talking on a cellphone. Nine guys floating on nine identical blue-and-yellow inner tubes tossing a football back and forth. Two girls doing handstands in the surf, their wriggling legs sticking up like sea anemone tentacles. A lifeguard standing on her high white chair and whipping a pair of semaphore flags back and forth.

"We saw a girl in a G-string on a boogie board yesterday," Owen offers.

"I saw my uncle on the beach last week," Jake says.

After making the last southbound turn of the day, Owen switches on a TV in the cabin and tunes to "Deadliest Catch" on the Discovery channel. Somewhere in Alaska, the captain of the Lisa Marie is enduring gale-force winds, frozen spray and a surly crew.

In Ocean City, the captain of the SeaBoard has kicked off his flip-flops.

To see a video of the SeaBoard in action, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/metro.

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