Keeping His Eyes on the Prize: Josh Linkner’s Consumer Incentive Approach to Interactive

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For all the awards, acclaim and financial gain that have come Josh Linkner’s (left) way in the realm of interactive marketing, one could never deduce that the CEO/founder of ePrize is actually a jazz musician at heart.

But unlike his pre-online, groove-riding heyday, where smoke-filled clubs and throwback lounges would’ve been his choice settings, Linkner plays to a whole new crowd nowadays. “My audience these days is mostly my six and eight year old,” he says via conference call from his Detroit home base. “I sing them jazz songs to sleep every night—each of them has about a hundred-song repertoire. It’s pretty funny. We’ll be in an elevator, and they’ll be like, ‘I know this song.'”

Jazz acumen and accomplishments aside, Linkner- a self-professed “computer nerd”- replaced the instruments with the virtual world over a decade ago, attuning his ambitions to a blossoming digital marketing space. With entrepreneurial spirit in tow, the budding exec went full circle, harnessing his advertising degree and carrying it over into a fertile, fresh field. “When the Internet came around, it was really a perfect home for me personally because three of my passions were all in the same spot: creativity and advertising and technology,” he recalls. “So I started [a] company in 1995, a web-design shop. So I’ve really been involved in the Internet—in the Internet marketing side of things—since its evolution.”

“Web design shop” might be an understatement for the company Linkner’s alluding to. Said “shop” was actually called Global Link Media, a firm which grew to be recognized as a “Top 100 Interactive Agency” by AdAge in both 1997 and 1998. The company in fact gained enough notice that its founder ended up selling it to a publicly traded company in 1999 called Rare Medium, Inc.

Having now whet his feet in the interactive pool, Linkner parlayed his incoming revenue stream, along with a cool $74 million in financing to start up ePrize- an agency that is involved in far more interactive marketing avenues than its name suggests. “I think our name doesn’t really do the company justice,” he admits. “We are [mostly] working with clients and they give us a business challenge, not so much a blueprint of what they want. So rather than a vendor, we really become more of a partner.”

Linkner continues, “So the client will say ‘Hey, I’m launching a new vehicle’ or ‘I’m selling computers and I have a great holiday season this year.’ And so we’re very involved in the ideation process. In other words, how can we apply interactive promotion to help them reach their marketing goals? From there, unlike many agencies that come up with great ideas but don’t execute, we have very deep execution horsepower to actually deliver.”

Just like with his last venture, ePrize embodies Linkner’s passion for creativity and technology, but this time, the vision is shaped by a customer incentive approach. ” I’ve read that the average consumer receives about 3,000 brand messages a day– how do you get your message heard across that nonstop noise?,” he asks. “We just philosophically get back to the concept that consumers care about one thing, which is themselves. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a prevalent attitude in society. So providing some type of incentive is the key. What we do is we help a client identify a specific behavior that their audience wants to do. Whatever those desired actions are, we then wrap incentives around the action to move the needle in favor of our clients.”

The wraparound strategy has paid off for ePrize. In just six years’ time, Linkner’s agency has expanded into five offices —Detroit, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and London- with over 175 employees worldwide. While growth is a key indicator of any company’s success, ePrize has also collected a heap of industry praise, including being named the #1 fastest growing and #3 overall promotion agency by PROMO Magazine. Some of its clients past and present have included Coca-Cola, The Gap, American Express, Dell and Adidas. To Linkner — no stranger to awards himself, having earned the 2004 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards among others — it’s an all-encompassing solutions package that gives ePrize a leg up over rival agencies.

“The pitch is that we can come up with the great ideas, but then actually get them done,” he states. “And that’s ranging from deep software engineering, graphic design strategy, account management, legal, fulfillment, etc. So we’ve brought together a seemingly unrelated group of disciplines under one roof. If you look at a competitive landscape—if it’s just against a traditional agency—they have great graphics and everything but they have no technology depth. And if we’re up against a software company, they get the software side of it, but they don’t understand the creative and marketing side of things. Much of what our DNA is all about is one-to-one marketing, data-driven relationships with a permission-based engagement. So we bring all of those disciplines under one roof, and that’s been a fairly compelling offering.”

The compelling nature of ePrize’s work hinges on the fact that Linkner & Co. have applied direct marketing touches to their interactive endeavors. At a time when measurability is also taking shape, the ePrize chief says it’s fine time to eliminate the stigmas towards direct marketing, and instead work to integrate it into interactive campaigns. “[Direct marketing], which was the ugly stepchild of advertising — telemarketing, direct mail and other stuff– worked great,” Linkner says. “But it diluted the brand, it was negative in perception. It wasn’t a positive experience for the consumer.”

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