Beyond the Wall
Call it wall power.
Two young Connecticut entrepreneurs have figured out how to crack the $30 billion dollar college market by delivering advertisers' messages directly to students.
While most advertisers try all sorts of gimmicks and promotions to woo the 7.5 million four-year undergraduates in the United States, Dennis Roche and Brian Gordon, co-owners of the Fairfield, Conn., catalog company Beyond the Wall, just do it -- getting students to pay for ads to decorate their dorm walls.
Their secret? Turning ads into poster art. They sell poster-size versions of print campaigns and, in a few cases, new ads or versions designed especially for their catalog. The 25 or so pages of their catalog are unadulterated hucksterism -- no editorial copy, just visually striking advertising from the likes of Nike, Reebok, Sprint, and Wonderbra. The latter's sexy poster is a best seller among college men, while women favor J.Crew's trendy, but wholesome, posters. And both sexes go for Nike.
The biannual Beyond the Wall catalog is distributed to almost 2.5 million students on 600 campuses. Recently, the company set up shop on the World Wide Web (http://www.beyondthewall.com), where students can buy ad posters and download a free screensaver composed of -- you guessed it -- ads. Customers pay $12.99 for three posters.
The company makes money by charging advertisers $45,910 for a color page in the catalog, and in 1995 had revenues of nearly $2 million. Not bad for two young entrepreneurs (Gordon is 26, Dennis 30) who launched the catalog two and a half years ago out of an 8-by-10-foot basement in Gordon's parents' Westport, Conn., home. Beyond the Wall, a four-man operation, does everything from signing up advertisers (with the help of three outside sales reps), printing the posters (using outside printers), distributing its catalogs (with the help of a 200-student sales promotion force), and fulfilling orders.
"It's very turnkey. We just give them the creative. They do everything else," says Ami Goodhart, senior media planner for advertising agency Messner, Vetere, Berger, McNamee, Schmetterer, which has the MCI 1-800-COLLECT account. MCI has advertised in Beyond the Wall for two years running.
"You get fantastic reach," says Goodhart. "Your creative is constantly up, and other students see it. It costs us so much money to get our creative to the right people. Here people are seeking it out and actually paying for it."
"It's a unique and different way to reach the college market," says Michael Staskin, product manager for Callard & Bowser-Scuhard Inc.'s Altoids brand. Indeed, Altoids' poster of a well-endowed muscle man with the tag line: "'Nice Altoids' -- the curiously strong mints" has caught the eye of a number of female customers. "People call and ask for dates. They want to know how they can meet the Altoids man," says Staskin. "We tell them that unfortunately he's preoccupied selling Altoids."
Not everyone was so enthusiastic when Beyond the Wall started.
"One of our early advertisers thought the idea was really dumb," recounts Roche."We came away from a meeting with him feeling down. There was no way he wouldparticipate with us." Three days later, however, the advertiser called back tosay what a great idea it was. What caused the turnaround? "He was tucking hischild into bed when he happened to look at the kid's wall," continues Roche. "The 15-year-old kid had an entire wall covered with ripped-out ads."
Actually, Beyond the Wall owes its start to the lure of advertising. Gordon says he couldn't resist helping himself to an ESPN banner that was hanging from the rafters of the gymnasium of the University of Pennsylvania, where Gordon was a student. Gordon and Roche hooked up at Procter & Gamble, where both worked in marketing.
The two say their biggest initial mistake was underestimating costs: their first printing job cost 20% higher than expected. Their advice: "If the majority of your costs come from one area, pay close attention to it." They havesince cut their printing costs by 25%, primarily by reducing costly prepress charges. They also stress that new businesses should start small and "know what they don't know."
Wendy Marx is a freelance writer.