What do telephone psychics, Spandex-clad abdomen flexers and the Los Angeles Times have in common?

As of last week, they can all be seen on locally airing infomercials or at least, a very close cousin known as direct response television commercials.

Like an infomercial, the ads feature an "800" number urging viewers to call in immediately to sign up for subscriptions. But technically a spot has to be 30 minutes long to be an infomercial, so the 60-second spots are known as short-form direct response ads.

The spots culminate a dramatic increase in marketing efforts by L.A.'s biggest daily, which under Times Mirror Co. Chief Executive Mark Willes has launched its first major advertising campaign since 1990, created in-store subscription sales programs in partnership with local retailers, and added substantially to its in-house marketing department.

The cost of all of this is a mystery. Jeffrey Klein, the paper's senior vice president of consumer marketing, isn't about to give any clues. He does concede that his department is growing, but won't say by how much.

"We've had a lot of personnel changes, mainly in that we've brought on more people with consumer marketing experience," Klein said.

The 60-second direct response spots will run through August, after which newspaper officials will count the number of subscriptions sold through the commercials and evaluate whether to continue the program.

Other big newspapers, notably The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer, have turned to direct response TV to sell subscriptions, with mixed results.

"The Globe doesn't think it works, but The New York Times does," Klein said.

The campaign was handled by Santa Monica-based Williams Worldwide, which wrote the commercials and bought the media time.

Williams has called on a tried-and-true infomercial technique to sell the Times the testimonial. Actual readers of the Sunday edition a vice president of marketing at Williams insists they are not actors tell viewers why they like the paper so darned much.

"It's sort of an axiom of the direct response industry that real people tend to sell best to real people," said Williams' Clare Thain.

Although the campaign only targets the Sunday Times, Thain anticipates that it will have a "cascade" effect, boosing the paper's other sales efforts (like telemarketing and direct mail) by creating added awareness about the paper. He expects the paper to see a boost in subscriptions for the daily editions as well as Sunday.

"There's no other medium as powerful as television as far as creating awareness," Thain said.

Well, don't tell that to the ad sales department at the Times.

Oh, what a tangled Web...

Rubin Postaer & Associates, which has one of the last really big Web site-development departments at a local advertising agency (it has more than 30 employees), lost the division's two founders late last month when they left to form their own interactive advertising company.

The defection has all the typical ingredients of most high-level departures from ad agencies bad blood between the principals involved, and a struggle over a big client.

A week after George Penner and Joseph Shak announced their intention to leave the division, called rp.i, to form Atomic PSR, Rubin Postaer announced that it was resigning the Sony Pictures Entertainment interactive account.

The obvious conclusion is that Sony is about to move its Internet account to Atomic PSR, but apparently the movie studio hasn't yet made any decisions on the matter. A long silence ensued when Penner was asked whether he was in negotiations with the studio.

"At this time, we do not have Sony Pictures," Penner said. "Obviously, we would do anything necessary to try to secure that business."

No doubt, because without Sony, Venice-based Atomic so far has exactly zero clients.

By the way, the "R" in PSR is for third partner Matt Reinhard, vice president at Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago and son of DDB Needham Worldwide Chairman Keith Reinhard.

Financed by its three partners and undisclosed outside investors Penner and Reinhard both insist that Reinhard's father Keith isn't one of them Atomic will bring the traditional advertising backgrounds of its founders to the interactive business. Three other rp.i employees have left to join the startup.

Those departures are the source of ill will between Rubin Postaer management and Penner and Shak, especially because the group left rp.i only five days after announcing their departures.

"That doesn't seem very reasonable or professional, does it?" asked Rubin Postaer President Gerry Rubin. "But then, their loyalties were disbanded by their own priorities."

Pete Imwalle, account supervisor on the American Honda Motor Co. account, has been appointed to take Penner's place at the head of rp.i. Rubin says his agency will continue to support its interactive division, because clients appreciate the consistency of having one agency handle both new and traditional media.

Penner said he's certain that rp.i will continue to be successful without him.

"Sometimes, things could be better upon departures, but hopefully everything can be worked out in the near future," Penner said.

News editor Dan Turner writes a marketing column for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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