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Drive My Car

The mantra of local car advertising is this: Whatever you spend on media should translate into sales. Every dollar needs to cover every dealership. And thanks to Sportslink LA, local buys just got easier.

Sportslink LA is an offshoot of Adlink, the Los Angeles-based interconnect that offers spot buys as a one-stop, one-shop process. (Adlink functions like a media broker, the middleman between buyers, sellers, and dealerships.)

"It made sense to have an entity that takes care of a client when it comes to sports," says Maureen Bennett, Adlink's director for strategic marketing. "It's much more efficient to put together packages where you could have the Lakers, the Clippers, and ESPN in one media buy."

Why does that matter to local car dealerships? It's a way to advertise at a reasonable price. Sportslink LA has a huge inventory, more than 1,500 hours of sports programming a year. And due to the consolidation of cable operators like Time Warner, Cox Communications, Comcast, Charter Communications, and others, it's a more affordable buy, say ad buyers.

According to Bennett, car ads are Sportslink's most important category. It just completed a deal with The Golf Channel and Ford's local Land Rover and Jaguar dealerships as sponsors of the Mutual of Omaha Drive, Chip & Putt Jr. Challenge. The tournament was recently held at four sites throughout the Los Angeles market, and Sportslink was able to tailor local cable spots to each area.

"As part of the sponsorship package, Jaguar and Land Rover received four weeks of on-air exposure promoting the events and four days of on-site exposure at each competition," Bennett says.

"We were able to use Ad-Tag, our segmentation tool, to market into four zones and customize the spots, which ran simultaneously in each separate location," she adds.

The growth of auto ads on local cable gives dealers the option of pitching singular messages in different regions. "Auto advertising has always been an important part of our business," says Marty Sokoler, vice president and general manager, Comcast Spotlight, Los Angeles. "For us, it's between 26% and 29% of our local ad revenue. And the growth is phenomenal. Last year, we saw 14.6% growth in ad spending; for the first three months of this year, we've seen an increase of 15%."

Says Lorraine Ferraro Kenny, automotive sales manager, Cox Enterprises, parent of cable operator Cox Communications. "In the past, cable, radio, and newspaper have been too fragmented. If you wanted to cover the entire DMA, you would buy multiple cable operators and systems and string them together. And that adds up to an expensive initiative."

Local cable benefits from a change in viewing habits. Broadcast TV still grabs the lion's share of dealer-association dollars, but the numbers have shifted: from 80%-90% of a budget to 60%-70%, media buyers estimate. Remember, cable TV once commanded a mere 5% of a dealer's budget, so the change is significant. "Dealers now may garner over 20% of an association's media spend," suggests Ferraro Kenny, noting that CMR doesn't yet measure local spot cable.

But Chris Rohrs, president of the Television Advertising Bureau, isn't convinced. He says that, on a cost-per-million basis, cable is still too high for many dealers. And, since many dealers are aiming within a 10- or 20-mile radius, it's an inefficient buy.

Kevin Barry, vice president for local sales and marketing, Cable Advertising Bureau, begs to differ. "About 20 years ago, local cable had 10% of the viewing," he says. "Now we have half. On a DMA-wide basis, where cable competes with broadcast TV, cable is competitive on price. They have to be, or they're not going to be on the buys. Cable can command higher cost per million the smaller the geography you cover."

Sokoler disagrees with Barry's rate assessment. "I wish it were true that local cable ad rates were more expensive than local broadcast," he says. "But I came from the broadcast side. I was shocked at how inexpensive the local cable dollars are. Our industry has seen ratings grow dramatically. We wouldn't see double-digit growth if clients weren't satisfied with the reach and response they get from advertising on local cable."

The car-advertising market is changing. But even with the success of Sportslink LA, Ferraro Kenny has two words of advice: Buyer beware. "The downside," she says, "is that it's not one system that advertisers are dealing with.

"If I wanted to buy ESPN's Sports Center
in one particular market," she continues, "the only way to guarantee the spot would run is to buy it nationally. Not every cable system, even within the interconnect, may offer it as something you can buy locally. It's definitely changed the way marketers can plan, buy, and implement local cable advertising."

Ferraro Kenny adds a caveat: "Make sure you get what you're paying for."