Boyhood Pals Produce a Top Hit with Vibes Media Texting Service

by Melissa Lederer
December 5, 2011

 

From Crain's Chicago Business

By: Paul Merrion December 05, 2011

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Alex Campbell, left, and Jack Philbin, right, have been making money together since they were 8 years old.
Photo by: John R. Boehm

Alex Campbell and Jack Philbin, who have been finding ways to make money together since they were 8 years old, thought they had a winner back in 1998: offering free pager services supported by brief ads that appeared along with the messages. Then came mobile phones, which threatened to render pagers obsolete.

It was the best thing to happen to the duo.

Within three years, Messrs. Campbell and Philbin relaunched their Vibes Media Inc. as a marketing tool that enables customers to interact instantly with advertisers by sending a text from their cellphones, say, to win free tickets from a radio station. AT&T Wireless signed on first, in 2001. Today Vibes Media's roster of blue-chip clients has expanded to Coca-Cola Co., Gap Inc., McDonald's Corp. and professional sports teams including the Chicago Bulls.

“It was so freaking obvious,” says Mr. Philbin, who has known Mr. Campbell since kindergarten in New Canaan, Conn., where they grew up washing cars and doing other odd jobs together. “Whenever there's an invention that makes communication more efficient, it gets adopted quickly.”

Texting to vote for favorite performers on “American Idol” is almost passé these days. But back when Messrs. Campbell and Philbin began selling the concept, it was new enough to qualify them for a patent for their “system and method for managing short message service communications for a radio station-hosted event.” (The 35-year-old co-founders have two more patents pending.)

“Timing is everything in innovation,” says John Greening, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Integrated Marketing Communications and a longtime Chicago ad agency exec. “They saw it coming; they were able to build to it, and they were able to line up the mobile-phone companies. They were without a doubt the first.”

Vibes Media, which is based in the Loop, has 85 employees. CEO Mr. Campbell declines to disclose financial data, though Inc. magazine put the company's revenue at $12 million in 2008. The business is profitable, he says.

Mr. Philbin, Vibes Media's president, graduated from Boston College with a bachelor's degree in economics and received an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Mr. Campbell earned a bachelor's in economics from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

Since the two started offering texting to broadcasters, myriad ways have been developed to link mobile-device users with advertisers, such as scanning a magazine ad to obtain a coupon on a smartphone. That leads Messrs. Campbell and Philbin to reckon that mobile marketing is still in its infancy.

“A mobile device is the most powerful marketing device that has ever been invented,” Mr. Campbell says. “You are walking into a store with a minicomputer in your hand.” But Vibes Media is focused on not just the technology but the interaction between consumers and brands, he says. “We're marketing people first.”

 
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