Ad pioneer Charlie Bird gets behind Carvertise

Mac Nagaswami and Greg Star. Photo by Ron Dubick.

By MICHAEL BRADLEY
Special to Delaware Business Times

Mac Nagaswami last spring took a trip to Miami with friends. It was his first real vacation in three years, and he had plenty of reasons to celebrate. Carvertise, his startup, had grown from an idea hatched by a couple of college students to a national enterprise with 16 full-time and 200,000 contract employees and a presence in 35 states. Sales doubled in size last year, and 2018 revenues had surpassed the entire 2017 stream by mid-May.

Things are moving so quickly that Nagaswami is having trouble keeping his cash flowing, because old clients can take 90-120 days to pay their invoices, while the abundance of new campaigns require instant resources.

“I see our growth trend continuing,” Nagaswami said.

The company is doing so well that advertising legend Charlie Bird took notice. The industry icon — whose Beetleboards of America firm pioneered using automobiles as advertising vehicles in California during the 1970s — reached out to Nagaswami and his partner, Greg Star, and invited them to Florida for a daylong meeting about how to maximize Carvertise’s future.

“That was nuts,” Nagaswami said of Bird’s interest. “It was mind-blowing.” Now Bird consults for the company on sales and marketing ideas and has made himself readily available. “We call him when we need him,” he said.

The Carvertise platform is a simple one: the company wraps ordinary folks’ cars in advertisements for clients and uses them as mobile billboards throughout an area. It targets consumers’ eyes according to market but also by where the drivers work. For instance, a pharmacy would like to have its messages on vehicles owned by people who park at hospitals and doctors’ offices. A consumer product wouldn’t be as concerned with the specifics of where the cars land, rather how many of them cover as much ground as possible.

Nagaswami and Star met while studying at University of Delaware. They came up with the idea while considering other advertising outlets for companies that didn’t have gigantic budgets for TV campaigns. At a charge of $300-to-$1,400 per month per car, the company offers a reasonable alternative to other media, especially if the “wrapped” cars are on the road with high frequency.

“I thought it was absurd that companies were advertising on buses and billboards,” Nagaswami said. “There are 350 million moving billboards in this country, and people were missing large opportunities.”

Nagaswami reports that more than 200,000 drivers across the country have signed up on the company’s website asking to take part in campaigns, a number that grows by “300 a day.” Last year at this time, the tally was increasing by 50 a day.

A recent agreement with Empire Today, the carpet and flooring retailer and installer, brought Carvertise into 25 different markets across the U.S., including West Palm Beach, Houston, Chicago and Seattle. Nagaswami marveled that a company wanted a campaign in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he figures there are “more buffalo than people.”

Since there are fewer people there and more ground to cover, it costs a little more for the client. Nonetheless, the company is getting more eyes on its logo than it would by putting a billboard in a semi-remote North Dakota location. That kind of thinking is what has made Carvertise successful.

“Mac’s brain works on a grand scope,” said Jay Patel, owner of Greenhill Pharmacy and a Carvertise client.

“It’s always fun to sit across from him and hear him talk, hear the ideas he always has. He has visions of grandeur. He has big ideas, but he is able to act on them.”

The first campaign for Greenhill involved just four cars in two Wilmington ZIP codes. Now the pharmacy uses 25 cars throughout the state, and Patel is considering expanding to Philly when a new store opens up there next year.

Other Carvertise clients are reaching a broader audiences, thanks to the wrapping of cars driven by folks working for Uber or Lyft. Since people in just about every crevice of an area use those services, Carvertise can extend a campaign’s reach to residential areas that have not been served traditionally by other advertising formats.

Wilmington University Assistant Vice President Bill Swain has spent four years at the school working on university relations, marketing, advertising and PR, and has partnered with Carvertise for three of those years. Swain reports that about 87 percent of the school’s students are working adults, with median ages of 30 for bachelor’s candidates and 36 for those pursuing master’s degrees.

By using wrapped cars of working professionals who park them in lots at hospitals, office buildings and other high-traffic areas, Wilmington can reach a large audience. Since the university offers a program for RNs to receive their bachelor’s degrees, a requirement hospitals will need to meet for their nursing staffs by 2020, it uses drivers who work in the health-care field.

“We did a campaign about how we care for our nurses and used 25 cars,” Swain said. “We could select where the drivers worked.”

While Nagaswami works to support his customers, he is delighted to receive counsel from Bird. In the 1970s, Bird started Beetleboards of America, which put advertisements on VW Bugs for 13 years and did $500 million in sales. Because he introduced the concept, Bird had been tracking Carvertise — and a few California firms who had dabbled in the concept earlier this century — and invited Star and Nagaswami to Florida to present his story, review his successes and missteps and provide any advice he could.

“This guy is an advertising legend,” Nagaswami said.

In the ’70s, Bird established an advertising foothold in southern California that served as a counterbalance to the Madison Avenue scene. He consulted with major U.S. corporations about their promotional efforts and began to notice something about the habits of college students: many of them drove VW Beetles. He conceived the idea of covering the cars with decals of clients’ ad messages and letting the kids serve as mobile billboards. Before he closed his shop in the mid-1980s, Bird had expanded across the country and even across the Atlantic, to London.

“He’s an advisor of ours,” Nagaswami said. “We call him when we need him. He knows how to sell this concept and can even make sense of the digital era. Selling to humans is still selling to humans. He reached out to us because he thinks we’re going to be successful and said. ‘I’m going to put my effort behind you.’”

“I think this is going to change the world,” Nagaswami said. “It’s a new media format that can reach any population anywhere in the world. We can create global success and a sustainable business using just kids who drive.”

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