Any ad agency will promise you original, unique ads -- unless it's Alan Bernstein's. "We recycle creative strategies," Bernstein admits freely. "This keeps our creative costs down substantially." That may sound like marketing suicide, but it sure hasn't hurt Bernstein's agency, The Practice Builder, which reports $3 million in sales after just six years. His secret? His clients are professional practices -- such as doctors, dentists, and CPAs. "We deal with very small businesses," he says. "We have the fat underbelly of the [advertising] market."

The Practice Builder, in Costa Mesa, Calif., grew out of a newsletter founded in 1983 to help small practitioners learn more about marketing. Along the way, Bernstein discovered that professionals with small marketing budgets demand that their advertising be affordable and effective -- but it doesn't have to be original. As long as the strategy is appropriate, they don't care if their Yellow Pages ad looks somewhat similar to one used by a colleague in another part of the country.

For that reason, the agency copyrights its ads and keeps a library of slogans and graphics, as well as a computer program to make sure components aren't recycled in areas too close to one another. Clients are interviewed by phone to determine the specifics of their practice and the values they want to stress, and the agency then puts appropriate ads together at a fixed, preset price. Most clients, says Bernstein, actually prefer using approaches that aren't new. Those, after all, are the ones for which the agency can show increases in advertising response rates, as tracked by previous clients. "Don't you want to use a proven strategy?" Bernstein asks prospects. "Or do you want to use an unproven strategy and try it out at your expense?"

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf