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GENERAL MOTORS, Microsoft, Hallmark, United Airlines–how does a small company like Giant Step meet the strategic electronic marketing needs of such Goliath-like clients?

“The secret of our success is the ability to combine marketing, technology, and creativity,” explains Rishad Tobaccowala, ’82, president of the firm that is creating some of the slickest, smartest web sites and digital solutions in cyberspace. “We need to manage relationships with large, established companies without losing the entrepreneurial magic and the skill set necessary to run our company.”

Giant Step is Leo Burnett Company’s entry into the competitive world of digital interactive marketing. Tobaccowala, who joined Burnett after graduation, started exploring the interactive arena for the ad agency in 1993. He soon came across Giant Step, a company begun in Iowa in 1991 brothers Eric and Adam Heneghan. In 1994 Giant Step and Leo Burnett formed a nonequity relationship, and by early 1996 , Leo Burnett decided that instead of developing an in-house interactive business, it would buy an equity stake in Giant Step, already an experienced player.

Tobaccowala runs the operation with its founders. Tobaccowala provides marketing strategy and establishes and maintains client relationships. Adam is the technology visionary, and Eric oversees media, research, and new business.

Animated and articulate, Tobaccowala clearly loves this business. “The most rewarding thing is the ability to have a medium that is so measurable that your clients can see its effectiveness,” he says. Clients know how many people visit their sites, how long they stay, and can measure customer leads generated by the number of people who request information. And firms realize a quantifiable cost savings when customers visit a web site rather than call a toll-free number.

Tracking these statistics helps Giant Step determine the effectiveness of its strategy, and they often hit the mark. “The great thing is that we have actually done what we said we were going to do. The company has actually delivered. In many cases we have clients that are very satisfied.”

With client testimonials, the Leo Burnett connection, and an impressive portfolio of engaging sites and functional solutions, Giant Step has had few problems attracting clients including Arthur Andersen, ComEd, McDonalds, Kelloggs, Ralston Purina, Maytag, Jenn-Air, and RCA. The trick, he says, is finding staff so the firm can keep up with demand.

“Our single biggest challenge is finding world-class talent so that we can grow,” says Tobaccowala. “We could easily double our business if we could find the talent.” While skilled programmers are the hardest to find, it’s also important to find staff that work well together.

“When you develop a digital solution, it requires design, technical, and strategic elements. It is not an assembly line process. People need to work together, and the ability to work in teams is very important,” he says. Giant Step has grown from 12 employees in 1996 to more than 50 today, and is using the solutions it specializes in to meet the staffing challenge. It has mounted an advertising and public relations blitz that includes promoting jobs on their web site.

The digital marketplace is challenging all companies to rethink the way they do business, and Tobaccowala is thrilled to be part of the change. “Companies are going to have to create new business models,” he predicts. “What we are seeing today, with [online bookseller] for example, is a lot of integration and collapsing of separate functions. You used to have stages where you made people aware of your product, established a relationship, and distributed the product. Now sales, communications and other channels are all combined. Yet how do you deal with a world of new business models while the old ones are still prevalent and paying the bills?”

The second challenge, Tobaccowala says, is building customer and consumer relationships. “Clearly, like never before, consumers have an amazing amount of data at their disposal. And once privacy issues are dealt with, the marketer will have a lot of information on the customer and will be able to create customized solutions to meet their needs. The question is, how will this be done?”

Whatever the challenge, the solution is simple: do it one step at a time.

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