Seeing Spots

Contractors place ads where government buyers will read them.

Metro riders in Washington are bombarded with messages about vacationing in West Virginia and buying houses in Baltimore. Now they're getting hit with one more: Buy Unisys software.

This fall, Unisys Corp., an information technology services company in Blue Bell, Pa., wrapped Metro trains in bright red and orange along with the tag line, "Don't take fear for an answer." It's part of a national campaign to associate the company with cutting-edge solutions in IT security.

"It helps our clients see us in a bolder, more creative way," says Ellyn Raftery, vice president of worldwide marketing and communications for Unisys. The purpose, she says, "is to get [clients] talking, to get them more aware of us, and for them to ask, 'What's going on at Unisys?' " Since 50 percent of Washington Metro riders are federal employees, she decided the trains were a good way to reach federal clients.

With tight agency budgets and a competitive market for government business, federal contractors are turning to advertising to rise above the crowd. Their full-page ads appear in The Washington Post and other publications, including this magazine. Sponsorships on National Public Radio and local commuter spots also are designed to catch the eye of federal employees, congressional staffers and senior government leaders with the power to direct contracts.

While the contracting process is designed to select companies based on objective criteria, analysts say advertising can provide an edge over competition.

As the Air Force looks to buy a slew of new planes, the subway routes that pass the Pentagon are covered in advertisements for various options, including Northrop Grumman's KC-30 Advanced Multi-Role Tanker Transport, Raytheon's Joint Cargo Aircraft and Boeing's tanker. "All the companies that are competing have been placing ads," says Murray Bond, director of marketing and sales for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

In September, when the Air Force Association hosted a convention in Woodley Park, a residential Washington neighborhood, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon blanketed the local subway station with images of their latest tanker and cargo planes. With hundreds of Air Force personnel passing through the station daily during the show, the goal was "to get people interested," says Northrop spokesman Gus Gulmert.

Not everyone is convinced the ads make a difference. "I don't pretend to understand why they think putting ads in the subway will affect decision-makers in the Pentagon," says Bond.

But contractors believe it will. In addition to creating "ongoing buzz," Raftery says Unisys places extra ads when bids are due, especially during the period between the solicitation release and award announcement, when contractors are prohibited from lobbying agency officials directly. "We might be in a blackout period where we can't necessarily have day-to-day verbal presence, but we want to stay alive and relevant," she says. And does it help? "My gut says yes."

Gordon Adams, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says ads amplify larger campaigns that involve lobbying and meetings with congressional and executive branch officials. Bid evaluators "could be reminded of aspects of the technical claim made by the contractor," he says. Or an ad might remind a congressional staffer that he has a meeting with the company's lobbyist later that day.

At the same time, when Adams served as a White House budget official during the Clinton administration, he says he can't remember anyone ever saying, "I saw this great ad, we have to buy this puppy."

Contractors also hope to create general good will through their advertisements. SAP, the global software company based in Newtown Square, Pa., uses advertisements to help make SAP a household name. Booz Allen Hamilton, a McLean, Va., consultancy, buys 10-second sponsorship slots on National Public Radio to promote its brand and boost morale among employees, as well as to recruit new ones.

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