America's infomercial queen has never hawked a miracle skin cream or sculpted an ab and rarely appears on TV. Instead, Toni Erickson Knight ascended to her throne by selling direct-response airtime to more than 250 domestic and foreign broadcasters, cable networks and syndicators as well as to satellite giant DirecTV. In the past year, her WorldLink LLC also has established a major beachhead in radio and is moving into such emerging platforms as broadband and wireless.
Knight's WorldLink acts as the intermediary between ad agencies that represent infomercials and the networks that air them. That way, the ad agencies don't have to spend a good deal of time building relationships with the broadcasters to book numerous infomercials.
What was launched as a niche time-placement firm nine years ago has grown into a $100 million per year business.
The marketplace seems right for WorldLink. In a media frontier exploding with nascent platforms, one of the hottest commodities on Madison Avenue is accountability the ability to measure viewership and consumer engagement. Direct-response advertising, once viewed as a lower form of advertising life, has taken on a new level of credibility because the advertiser knows immediately how effective the ad is by the number of calls it generates from viewers.
"It's all about return on investment," Knight said. "The reason it's become so popular is that it is measurable and accountable. So many businesses are now demanding quantifiable measures of how effective their ad campaigns are. Well, direct response is built for that. You can see who you are reaching, and fast."
WorldLink sells far more than ThighMaster. The firm offers accounting, marketing, research, technology support and database information analysis to their advertisers.
That diversification has enabled Knight's company to expand from four employees to nearly 75, and propel gross revenues from about $100 million in 2003 to a projected $150 million in 2006.
Late last year WorldLink entered the radio market, starting with about 1,500 U.S. stations. In a bid to lure national advertisers, WorldLink formed a partnership with Interep National Radio Sales Inc., a New York sales and marketing company that is parent to radio representation firms ABC Radio Sales, D & R; Radio and Infinity Radio Sales, each of which handles groups of stations.
The simplicity of direct-response advertising should serve WorldLink well in the future, Knight said. "We are in a great position to capitalize on the changing media landscape and new technological advancements."
Already working on ways to tackle the potential challenges and opportunities presented by podcast and video-on-demand technology, WorldLink is exploring "embedded" ads those that can't be skipped or fast-forwarded by TiVo-equipped viewers.
"As some of the new media platforms learn the value of (direct response) and more advertisers experience the return on investment that this kind of advertising provides, we will further diversify our media representation," she said.
Knight started college at South Dakota State but transferred to USC after two years to complete her B.A. in broadcast journalism. After graduating, she went to work in local television, starting on the news side but eventually joining KABC to work in sales, departing when some colleagues left the station to form Prime Ticket cable sports network.
Knight spent eight years at Liberty Sports, Prime Sports West, Prime Ticket Network and eventually at Fox Sports Net, after News Corp acquired the networks.
Her career in infomercials began over the phone. While working at Prime Ticket, she got a call from an ad agency rep who wanted to buy a direct response slot on the network. The call piqued Knight's interest and, after booking a few similar ads, she saw untapped potential and began to specialize in selling direct response ads.
"That was the trigger. And I thought: Maybe there's a business here," she said.
When Fox decided to focus more on original programming, cutting the amount of available ad time, it provided the impetus for Knight to strike out on her own. She spun off her own business and created WorldLink.
She leased space in the same Fox building on Santa Monica Boulevard where she worked for years and brought four employees on board.
By the end of her first year in business, Knight had signed all 23 of Fox's regional cable sports networks as clients.
"I wanted to maximize the client base by starting with network television," Knight said. "It was a great way to get on the map and it allowed me to move on to different media platforms."
The first broadcast station to team up with WorldLink was L.A.'s KCAL. With that as a springboard, she built a roster of network and cable clients. In 1998, Knight decided it was time to take WorldLink global. She inked her first international deal with Fox Sports en Espanol, a move that allowed WorldLink to take a quantum leap in terms of volume.
"We wanted to grow our global media sales," Knight said. "We could go to ad agencies and be a one-stop shop for network, cable and international ad time. There was nobody else in that market."
The diversification strategy helped WorldLink during lean economic years, enabling the company to turn to other media and markets when advertisers were cutting back in U.S. cable advertising. Having clients in far-flung sites like Shanghai, Beijing and Budapest provided the opportunity for a young woman from Burnsville, Minn., to see the world for the first time, too.
"It made me grow up," she said. "It's one thing to be in a meeting and pitch in your own language and know that people will understand. It's completely another to do it in another country with different customs and nuances, or a culture that is not too positive on women."
It also allowed WorldLink to break into Hispanic media. Capitalizing on early success, WorldLink has become the largest independent firm serving the Hispanic market, with CNN en Espa & #324;ol and DirecTV Para Todos as key clients.
In addition to international adventures, Knight's work also brought her together with her husband, Tony Vinciquerra, who is president and chief executive of the Fox Networks Group.
The two met when Knight was pitching to the syndication company Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., where Vinciquerra served as executive vice president and chief operating officer. The two dated cross-country for a few years (and endured the "Toni-and-Tony" jokes) until Vinciquerra moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to accept his current position at Fox.
"I didn't get the business, but I got the guy," Knight laughed.
Knight is as involved with running the business as ever, but she does some of her work from home now in order to spend time with her husband and the couple's year-old daughter, Sophia.
"You always hear how becoming a parent takes away from your freedom, but I think we're so used to being busy that it's been really fun," she said.
* WorldLink LLC
Year founded: 1997
Core Business: Selling direct-response airtime to radio stations and emerging media platforms, as well as domestic and foreign TV broadcasters and cable networks
2004 Revenues: $120 million
2005 Revenues: $135 million
2004 Employees: 65
2005 Employees: 75
Goal: To grow the company by exploiting new media markets such as wireless and broadband
Driving force: Companies looking for measurable advertising in various media
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