Target marketing. Focused marketing. Pinpoint marketing. They're all the rage. Suppose they're wrong?

In the beginning, there was the ad. And it was good. (At least marketers thought so.) But the problem quickly became that there were too many of them, so advertisers began to look for ways to break through the clutter.

The result? Heartwarming ads (McDonald's). Inspirational ads (remember the disabled veteran playing basketball thanks to an artificial leg from Du Pont?). Funny ads (Federal Express).

This, too, was fine, but it wasn't enough. With the cost of advertising climbing daily, you must do more than attract people. You have to attract the right people. So you're beginning to see ads for cold remedies placed in magazines that are found only in doctors' waiting rooms (Whittle Communications' Special Reports). And it's now possible for magazine advertisers to customize their messages. So in coming months expect to see ads that will mention some pertinent part of your life. ("Now that you've turned 50, we think you'll be interested in our . . .") The goal is to zero in on the right customer. As the new trite saying along Madison Avenue goes, "It's better to use a rifle than a shotgun."

But suppose that's wrong?

The folks at Burt Hill Kosar Rittelman Associates think it may be. Executives at the 300-person firm know all about the thinking along Madison Avenue. But the company -- which does design, architecture, and engineering work -- is headquartered in Butler, Pa., and maybe the 300-mile separation from Manhattan explains its unconventional approach to advertising. They're not using a rifle. It's more like a shotgun with a very bad sight. The funny thing is, though, it's working.

To advertise the firm, Burt Hill is a running a series of radio spots on Pittsburgh's all-news station. Goodness knows, that's not cost effective. Think of all the butchers and bakers and candlestick makers the firm is reaching, people who will never hire an architect to put up a $20-million building, the typical size of a Burt Hill project.

What's more, the commercials, which run twice a day, don't even sound like commercials. The 60-second spots are called Design Considerations. In each one partner John Kosar talks about a different architecture-related matter -- whether or not his firm does work in that particular area. While Kosar has done ads discussing the importance of energy-efficient buildings and the best ways of laying out an office -- two of the firm's specialities -- he has also talked about some of the more interesting bridges in Pittsburgh. Burt Hill has never built a bridge in all its 53-year history.

"Yes, this approach is different," says Kosar. "But that's the whole idea. We're looking for a way to set us apart from other architects."

That's a valid and important point, especially if you don't advertise to the consumer. The problem with business-to-business advertising -- especially as done by professional service companies -- is that it all looks the same. Concerned that their message must be "dignified," architectural firms, for example, distribute four-color booklets printed on glossy paper, and the contents are identical whether the brochure is from a firm in Sacramento or Secaucus. First comes the introduction that says, "We're innovative and people oriented." Then there are the dramatic photographs of the buildings the firm has designed; that's followed by a list of awards. The truly daring might even include snapshots of the principals.

"With everybody doing that, no one stands out," says W. Bruce Lea III, Burt Hill's head of marketing. "We needed a new way to communicate."

That's where the radio spots fit in. First off, simply being on the radio gets some attention. But since the firm is talking about design in general, instead of plugging the specific skills of Burt Hill Kosar Rittelman Associates, it gives the listener a reason to stay tuned. While Kosar manages to mention the firm's name three times in each ad, the pitch is subtle. (See "Radio Rules," below.)

OK, so the spots are attracting attention. But they also attract a lot of people who are never going to hire a commercial architect. We're not talking about an impulse purchase here. ("Hey, honey, that radio commercial really sold me. What say we put up an office building?") Isn't the company wasting a lot of money in reaching thousands of noncustomers?

No, says Kosar. His reasoning has two parts. First, most people don't know a lot about architecture or design, so the ads are a public service, a way for him to explain a field he is proud of.

J. Rossi, the company's director of communications, gives the second reason. "This doesn't cost a lot of money to do."

Burt Hill pays American Information Marketing Inc., a Pittsburgh public-relations and advertising firm, $2,000 a month to prepare 20 scripts. The airtime costs another $1,000. "So the whole thing runs $36,000 a year, about half of what it costs us to do a direct mailing to 10,000 people," says Rossi. "When you look at in those terms, the approach is efficient, despite the fact that you are reaching a lot of people who will never become customers."

So far the company is happy with the results of the campaign. In large part, that may be because they didn't go into it expecting miracles.

"Our purpose is to keep our name out there," says Lea, the marketing head. "We want to be on the short list when people are thinking about hiring an architect. The people who make those decisions are the heads of companies, board members, and division heads. They're the people we're trying to reach. We don't expect to be able to say that as a result of these ads we got three new jobs. But we do expect our name recognition to go up, and it has."

So what we have here is an interesting way of getting noticed. Is it perfect? Of course not. It's more than possible that your target audience won't be listening when your ad runs, or that people who will never become clients will tie up your phone lines by calling to learn more about bridges, or that folks will be so smitten with the things you tell them about design that they will forget who sponsored the spot. Still, radio is cheap, compared with print or TV, and by buying time on an all-news station, the company can be assured of hitting a large part of its target audience. (It surveyed potential customers about their listening preferences before launching the campaign.)

"We were looking for a piercing dart to break through to our audience," says Lea. "We think we've found it."

Even if they used a shotgun, instead of a rifle, to launch it.


Here's how to make your commercial sound uncommercial

You want to get people's attention. You want them to enjoy what you have to say. But you also want them to remember your name. This advertising-without-advertising thing is tricky. Here are the rules Burt Hill Kosar Rittelman Associates followed in developing their campaign.

* Welcome to show biz. Remember, you're entertaining, not selling. While you may be in the plastic extruding business, most of your listeners won't be. You don't hear Paul Harvey devoting his entire show to plastic extruding -- every day. You shouldn't either.

* Keep the plugs to a minimum. Yes, it's perfectly OK to mention your company's name at the beginning and end of the spot. And all right, you can mention your product line. Once. But that's it. If the commercial sounds like a commercial, you defeat the whole purpose.

* Stale news is bad news. While it's more cost effective to repeat your shows, that approach is destined to turn off listeners. Think of it this way: how many TV reruns do you watch?

* What else can you do with this stuff? Be prepared to send scripts and a follow-up pitch letter to people who call. When salespeople go on calls, have them leave copies of the cassette with prospective customers. Mention that you're the sponsor of the radio program in your other ads. Just because the radio spot is not commercial is no reason the rest of your marketing campaign shouldn't be.