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Brickfish Helping to Raze the Wall Between Clients, Online Customers

A local startup has found a new twist to the art of the publicity stunt.

While Britney shaved her head in public and Madonna sold a sex book to get people talking, San Diego-based Brickfish is taking marketing to the virtual realm.

The business, which has drawn interest from Silicon Valley investors, conducts online contests for clients who want to get customers talking about their products and services.

Brickfish primarily works with film studios and record labels, as well as businesses in the beauty, fashion and health industries.

An example of a campaign conducted for a client was a design-a-poster contest for a band about to go on tour.

In a month, 3,427 visitors to the Web site voted for their favorite poster, said Chief Executive Officer Shahi Ghanem. He said that the contest was one of the first his firm conducted.

“These people are trying to get others to look at their art, so they post it on their MySpace page, to their friends through e-mail and their blogs,” Ghanem said. “In the meantime, they drive publicity for the band.”

Ghanem was formerly president of San Diego’s DivX Inc., a video software firm he grew to 300 employees, and he remains a shareholder in the now publicly traded company.

Ghanem was an early investor in the firm launched by software entrepreneur John Kernan.

In February, Brickfish closed $11.2 million in first-round financing led by Silicon Valley investment firm DCM. Dixon Doll, DCM’s general partner, sits on Brickfish’s board of directors.


Pairing Users With Advertisers

Brickfish clients pay Brickfish $2,000 to $500,000 to run a contest, though the average campaign will range between $2,000 and $30,000, said Ghanem.

“We make money by driving engagement between users and advertisers,” he said, adding that the Web site, www.brickfish.com, which was launched in January, carries no advertising.

The cost to the client for campaigns is adjusted based on the amount of traffic generated by Brickfish.

Ghanem describes Brickfish as both an entertainment and advertising vehicle.

But unlike a traditional agency, the hype generated begins on the Web.

Brickfish clients must assume the buzz generated online translates into actual purchases.

Ghanem understates the site’s interactive nature when he says, “It’s like buying a billboard space.”

Brickfish can also post links to the company’s products to further drive sales, he said.


A New Approach

Local ad agency execs said they haven’t heard of Brickfish or its new model.

Robyn Kriss, marketing manager at Geary Interactive, which prides itself on being tech savvy, said sites such as YouTube or MySpace allow users, including businesses, to create pages and post contests for free.

“What can you do on here that MySpace can’t?” she said.

Brickfish said its technology allows clients to track where the content goes as it is passed along the Internet , from Brickfish’s site to someone’s MySpace page, then into someone’s blog, and perhaps even in mainstream media.

Depending on the details gathered about those who pick up the content, the customer information gathered may well be the most valuable tool to potential clients interested in “advertising” on Brickfish.

“It’s kind of like Sirius and XM Satellite Radio where they eliminated advertising, but you had to pay for it,” Kriss said. “But they merged, so I guess you have to decide if that’s a good thing or not.”

Allen Jones, vice president of advertising for Bailey Gardiner, said national companies are most likely to benefit from such online publicity stunts, and noted that Brickfish’s model is “a little ahead of its time.”

Brickfish is talking with cosmetic and jean companies to set up a lip-gloss naming competition and jeans design contest.


Tough Sell

“You’ve got to have a company that says, ‘We’ll relinquish a little control, but only if we’re going to get a lot of press for it,’ ” Jones said.

Brickfish, which has conducted 50 campaigns, has no local clients. Jones said since San Diego is a print-dominated market, he doesn’t see local businesses jumping on the concept.

“It’s still a huge leap,” he said, adding that he’s found it difficult to convince some of his clients they should beef up their Web sites.

“Marketing directors in San Diego are still just now getting into banner ads on the Web,” he said. “It’s a hard sell at this point.”

Ghanem said he expects Brickfish to be profitable by the end of this year, but wouldn’t disclose revenue or projected revenue.

He said he expects the firm’s employee count to double to 40 from 20 this year. The firm also has employees in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Jones said he thinks one of the most brilliant ideas within Brickfish is the potential for customer loyalty generated through consumer participation.

“The more you get them hooked into the creation of it, the more they’ll have that brand loyalty everyone is looking for,” he said.


Editor’s Note: The original version of this story contained errors concerning Shahi Ghanem’s role with DivX, the number of voters in the design-a-poster contest, and the average cost to run a campaign on Brickfish’s site. This version has been corrected.

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