The next time you go online to shop for tires, find the nearest steakhouse or research a vacation to Germany, consider this: Steve Parker Jr. and his team at Daniel Island-based Levelwing are probably watching and analyzing your every move.
Through telephone numbers, URLs and other e-markers, they're monitoring your path from Google to the destination website and, eventually, to your wallet. That way they can tell Bridgestone, Ruth's Chris Steak House or Oktoberfest officials what advertising is working and how to reel in more customers.
Levelwing is a 21st-century ad agency, which means it's about data and analytics at least as much as it's about making brands catchy or sticky.
“We're able to track from a digital touchpoint ... to an offline action,” Parker explained in a recent interview at Levelwing's Daniel Island headquarters, a former Bauer International showroom that still features Bauer's high-end furniture and a life-size stuffed giraffe.
The monitoring may sound like Big Brother to some, but to Parker, it's just operating at the cutting edge of web marketing, using as much data as possible to take the guesswork, and maybe some of the mystique, out of advertising.
“There's no shortage of ideas and creativity, but almost every client shortchanges themselves on measuring whether it worked or not,” he said. “And that's what we do.”
As of last Wednesday, Levelwing's been at it a decade, and by just about any measurement, they're doing pretty well.
Last year, the firm brought in $52.8 million, according to financials reported to Inc. magazine.
Its nearly 500 percent growth over the past three years was good enough for a place on the Inc. 5,000 list for the third straight year.
The company's workforce has steadily increased, and its client list now ranges from automotive heavyweights to tourism offices from Oregon to Europe.
And to think Parker and Jeff Adelson-Yan — friends, foils and Western Kentucky University Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers — launched Levelwing out of Parker's New York City apartment with $12,000 in 2002.
“We've grown a lot since then,” said Parker, now a 38-year-old father of two, whose daughter's art hangs on his office wall with a painting of a boxer and a big whiteboard.
The pair linked up after spending most of their 20s riding the dot-com boom. They'd served their time in other people's shops, and it was time to strike out on their own. In keeping with the company name, Parker thinks of himself as a “gut check” fighter pilot and Adelson-Yan as a “hyper-analytical” 747 pilot.
“We've actually never disagreed directionally on where the company should lead,” Parker said.
After studying health care administration in college and serving as an athletic trainer to help pay for it, Parker returned to his hometown of Nashville to work for Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. He was only 21, but as a member of the health care giant's new digital media team, Parker worked on the same floor as the company's chief executive, now-Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
“I got to know Rick really well,” Parker said. (They have remained close and had lunch earlier this summer in Naples, Fla.)
When Scott resigned amid a Medicare billing scandal and bought America's Health Network, Parker went with him. In 1998, AHN broadcast a woman giving birth at an Orlando hospital live on the Internet, the largest-ever streaming event at the time. It was so popular, AHN asked RealNetworks to carry the video in addition to the primary streamer, Broadcast.com, drawing the ire of that company's famously hot-blooded CEO.
“I can remember vividly being on the phone with Mark Cuban ... and him yelling and screaming at us,” Parker said. “He was loud and crazy. We got an earful.”
Scott's next deal, selling AHN to News Corp., brought Parker to New York. He eventually joined a continuing medical education website called Medscape that went public before becoming “your typical dot-com bust story,” he said.
Before the bubble burst, Parker's old boss at AHN tried to recruit him to an upstart search engine called Google.
“And I turned it down,” Parker said. “That's probably the biggest financial mistake I ever made.”
Parker chose a women's website, iVillage, instead, a job he quit two years later to start Levelwing. That old boss, Tim Armstrong, rose through the ranks at Google and is now CEO of AOL.
In the years since, Parker and Levelwing have carved out their own niche in web marketing and data analysis. Leaving Adelson-Yan to lead the Manhattan office, Parker set up shop in Charleston in January 2008 and has grown the office to 65 people.
Speaking back in April, Parker said about 60 percent of the firm's revenue came from marketing and advertising with the rest coming from mining and analyzing various data for clients.
Now it's half and half, and Parker sees the analytics portion only increasing in both volume and subject area. That would reflect a broader trend of employing “big data” to do everything from predicting crime or stocks to helping doctors diagnose patients.
“Advertising's been dominated for years by creative,” but getting customers' attention is not the same as getting them to buy, said Parker. That's where companies are wasting their advertising budgets, relying on “convenience metrics” such as Facebook likes, and that's where other ad agencies are behind the curve, Parker says.
“I would say the industry in general has a long way to go,” he said.
Parker and Adelson-Yan are trying to practice what they preach on their blog in their own company. They have refrained from taking on outside investors and won't, Parker said, unless it really makes sense as part of a major strategic acquisition or new technology push, both of which may be in the works.
It goes back to the aviation-themed name of the company.
“If you don't use data to fly, you will crash,” Parker said. “Every decision we make should have a basis.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.