Feeding the press in byte-sized chunks

It wasn't that long ago that ATI Technologies was considered the top player in the video chip market. Its Rage 3-D technology was, well, all the rage.
But if there's anything we know about the high technology industry, it's that things change - rapidly and mercilessly.

It wasn’t that long ago that ATI Technologies was considered the top player in the video chip market. Its Rage 3-D technology was, well, all the rage.

But if there’s anything we know about the high technology industry, it’s that things change – rapidly and mercilessly.

Combine a stagnant industry and an aggressive competitor based in the U.S. and we’ve now got a playing field basically owned by two players: Markham, Ont.-based ATI no longer enjoys top spot. Over the past two years, arch-rival NVIDIA Corporation of Santa Clara, Calif., seemingly blessed by the high-tech gods, has gained market share and a reputation that has left ATI gasping for air.

Winning back the top spot won’t be easy, but ATI has made significant changes in the past 18 months. It has not only made major personnel changes (many top executives are new, including the president, CFO, VP of marketing and head of public relations), but it has also modified its development strategy – assigning two engineering teams to leapfrog each other to maintain momentum.

‘We did that for survival,’ says John Challinor, director of public relations. The fast pace of the industry – and the fact that the field has shrunk so much – makes for a real emphasis on being the first out of the gate.

‘There’s a real sense of urgency to change,’ he says. ‘Part of this change involved coming to market with more competitive products – products that were more than just mainstream, but high-end and high-performance.’

The idea, then: Make the best chip and they – read, gamers, analysts and shareholders – will come. The best chip was to be the Radeon 8500, and it was to launch in August 2001. But coming out with the company’s hottest chip since its Rage days would be worth nothing if people didn’t know about it.

The goal

The company knew early this year that its first order of business was to get ATI back into the minds of its audience prior to that August launch. According to Challinor: ‘We wanted to educate our various publics and share with them that ATI was back in the game, big-time, as a technology leader.’

The strategy

With the help of PR agency of record BenchMark Porter Novelli of Toronto, ATI decided that a three-phase rollout, highlighting the most impressive features of the chip, would not only generate excitement about the company, but make the complicated technology more palatable for the audience.

‘We wanted to start creating some buzz without letting out of the bag what we were announcing,’ says Anne Ferguson, senior consultant at the agency.

The execution

In late May, the company made its first technology announcement, showcasing Truform, a rendering technology that delivers a smoother and more natural 3-D experience. The agency decided to focus on the tech media, with newsroom tours in New York, Boston, San Francisco, San Jose and Toronto.

The company also chose to introduce the technology to key analysts, with the notion that these are the insiders journalists tend to approach for industry opinions. Lead times were taken into account – a consideration the company wasn’t known for in the past – and industry analysts and company insiders were made available for interviews.

In mid-July the second phase rolled out, featuring another

technology, Smartshader, which facilitates the creation of finely detailed and realistically lit computer-generated images. Another newsroom tour was launched and key media contacts and reporters were flown in. The technology was also simultaneously touted at the Microsoft Meltdown industry event in Seattle, says Ferguson.

This is when things got complicated. There are more than 400 reporters in Canada and the U.S. working for the trade, consumer and business press who are interested in the graphics market. While only the top tier – about 35 – were targeted at each stage of the game, it was still a challenge to keep everything straight.

Depending on a publication’s frequency and target, certain waves of technology carried the most weight at certain times. Some people wanted Smartshader interviews; others who had missed the Truform pressers wanted more information about that. And, though the launch date of the biggest announcement – the Radeon – was a month away, the company was starting to provide information to top-tier target journalists so that they would have everything on hand to craft their story once the product was officially released.

To keep PR agents reaching for the Aspirin, the firm also decided to put together a comprehensive media package, including a CD,

to target 200 or so media personnel in North and South America and Australia who weren’t at any of

the pressers, timed to arrive first thing in the morning on the day

of Radeon’s release. ‘It was quite convoluted but it went off really well,’ Ferguson says.

The results

Buzz was generated with online, print and broadcast coverage, says Ferguson. In fact, she boasts of a cover win on this month’s Maximum PC magazine, which promotes the Radeon 8500 in its ‘Must-have hardware’ section.

ATI’s Challinor says that, so far, all evidence points to success.

‘Our objective was to increase coverage by 25% and favourability by a couple of points,’ he says, adding that early numbers by Toronto research firm Carma International went beyond these goals. In fact, company coverage increased by 50%, while its favourability rating rose six points.

More importantly, the company learned a valuable lesson about how to best serve its audiences – present and future customers, industry

analysts, financial analysts and

shareholders – in such a fast-paced industry. By delivering information in bursts, in as convenient a manner as possible, the company has a stronger chance of making an impact, he says.

Challinor, who joined ATI a year ago from Compaq Canada, says

that when technology is moving so quickly, breaking it down into

smaller bites – and ensuring that every insider knows as much as they can about each one – is the only way to go.

The company had never taken this approach before – but will definitely be doing it again, he says. ‘It’s the strategy we’re going to use in the next wave.’