Coming to a waiting line near you

It’s not another jaw-dropping Super Bowl halftime spectacle or the latest reality gimmick about another eccentric billionaire. But at a time when attention spans dwindle with each commercial break and businesses strain for creative ways to draw new customers, a pair of high-tech entrepreneurs in Londonderry are banking on their own version of must-see TV.

Or call it can’t-miss TV.

“There are real changes happening in the world, and between TiVo and satellite radio, it’s becoming harder and harder for corporate America to reach us,” says Mike Opre, president of Captivating Ads, a Londonderry start-up. “What we do is monitor life patterns, which is why you’ll see our screens in high traffic areas, like your local workout facility or your neighborhood bar or deli. Unlike your television, with me, you can’t shut me off, you can’t change the channel, you can’t throw me out. You can only close your eyes.”

A recent visit to one of Opre’s and business partner Harry Mellen’s 60 host locations bears that out. Walk into Mr. Steer off Route 102 in Londonderry and their screen hits you right away. Smack dab above a bank of steak tips and rump roasts is a glowing, near-kaleidoscopic liquid crystal display screen – one that flashes nonstop silent ads and has customers alternately looking up and down as they place their orders.

“The technology isn’t new, and you can see the idea in large form in New York on the sides of buildings, like in Times Square,” Mellen says. “We’re pioneers in that we’re bringing these ads to the local level.”

To be sure, Mellen and Opre’s ads aren’t for the latest Coca-Cola or Frito-Lay product rollout, but for area businesses — everything from health clubs and Realtors, to restaurants and repair shops. So far, more than 175 of them throughout New England have signed up to have their wares and services hawked on Captivating Ads’ 30- and 42-inch LCD and plasma screens.

As for those who agree to host one of the pair’s screens, they can have their own commercial filmed and run for free. All of the 10-to-25-second spots are routed to the screens through an Internet server based out of Opre’s home, and advertisers can pick the types of locations where they want their spot to be run.

The cost per ad is about $100 per week, depending on length.

Starting in the basement

Opre and Mellen, who are neighbors, dreamed up the concept only last year as each looked for a new career direction. Both had seen success in business — Mellen, 43, as the head of a firm that upgraded restrooms for large-scale industrial clients; Opre, 41, at the helm of a staffing service that catered to high-tech clients, but went belly-up as the tech bubble burst in 2002.

“I would be upgrading a restroom at one of these service stations, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is a missed opportunity. Wouldn’t it be cool if someone could put together something to advertise to customers in these areas?’” Mellen said.

It didn’t hurt that Mellen’s wife Donna has experience in video production and computers as a technical troubleshooter, or that Opre has his own high-tech background. In November 2003, the two men and their wives started up the fledgling business in Opre’s basement, plunking down $200,000 of their own money and starting with just five computer monitors and a 100-hour-a-week ground operation to sell ad space and pick up hosts.

“Both of us have owned and run businesses, and logic, of course, told us to do a lot of technical investigating to see if something like this could work,” Opre says. “If you go to Europe, you’ll see these screens and this kind of advertising in a lot of places. But the question here obviously was, ‘If we build this, will they come?’”

By all accounts, they have. In their first year alone, Opre and Mellen have screens installed or on order at about 100 businesses in two dozen communities throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The pair recently installed a screen in the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.

Big ambitions

At Mr. Steer, meantime, owner Chris George was the first to take a chance on Mellen and Opre last year, when he agreed to host one of their screens – a screen he says served the dual role this past Thanksgiving of entertaining customers who lined up out the door for turkeys and for getting word about his business out to other communities.

“I advertise on television and in the paper around here,” George says. “But sometimes, I’ll look at the addresses on the checks people are writing, and a lot of them are coming here from way up north or up from Massachusetts. And when I ask them how they heard of us, they’ll tell me they saw our ad on one of the screens in Manchester, at say, the Verizon. I can’t say this hasn’t helped.”

In their first year, Opre says Captivating Ads has taken in about $500,000, or about twice the pair’s initial investment. Jobs like video production, meantime, that once had to be subcontracted out are now handled by the company’s own staff of nine workers. Plans call for soon vacating Opre’s cramped basement and opening a local office.

By the end of next year, the pair will shoot to have screens installed in up to 400 locations, with plans to branch out to college campuses. A new feature, meantime, will allow host businesses to run a crawl at the bottom of a screen, displaying their own personal messages, from daily specials to holiday greetings.

The challenge from this point is establishing legitimacy in a multibillion-dollar advertising industry, which is already jam-packed with print, Internet, television and radio hawkers. Opre and Mellen say their intention isn’t to go head-to-head with those other media, but instead to complement them.

“Our aim is to change the landscape of advertising for companies so that this becomes a normal buy, not an unusual buy,” Opre says. “We’re not here to compete with newspapers, TV and radio. We just want to co-exist and help create a good media mix for our clients.”

He adds that he can “see this idea going national. LCDs and plasma screens are alluring in and of themselves. And when you put attractive-looking presentations on them, you literally have to close your eyes not to look.”

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