Flipside: A few minutes with... Mark Amtower

Mark Amtower

Mark Amtower is founder and senior partner at Amtower and Co., a consulting firm that helps companies shape their marketing and advertising messages for the federal market. He also publishes an e-mail newsletter that focuses on marketing to the government, and it has something of a cult following. He also wrote a book on the subject.

Amtower didn't set out to be a consultant, but he launched his firm in 1985 after working in government media and observing that contractors and their advertising agencies didn't know what they were doing. Twenty years later, he said, many of them still don't.

What you do is not easily categorized. How do you define it?

Amtower: It is its own category and that's probably straddling several. It's probably easier to say what I'm not. I'm not an ad agency. I'm not a [public relations] firm. I'm not a contract consultant. But I work with companies to provide an overview of all of those functions. My main focus is to help companies identify and reach the niches in the government they need. Very few companies need to reach the vast majority of computer users out there. But somewhere out there is a pocket of people who are going to be most influential in your category.

What are the most common misconceptions you find?

Amtower: The most common misconception I run across is that a General Services Administration schedule contract makes your phone ring. The same people who win on other contracts are the same ones who win on GSA schedule contracts. They understand that the schedule contracts are just a license to sell. You can be successful on the schedule and make a lot of money, but marketing is a key aspect. Frankly, most companies shouldn't be getting their own schedule anyway. They should identify a company selling something close to what they're selling and get appended to their schedule.

You identify poor marketing or bad advertising. What are some common mistakes that companies make?

Amtower: The biggest thing is the inability of corporations or a corporate ad agency to understand the nuances in this market. They'll take their normal commercial ad, and they'll plop it into Federal Computer Week. They won't even go so far as to replace the word "company" with "agency" or "department." The [ad] agencies I've seen come out of New York or northern California just don't get it at all.

How did your background prepare you for this field?

Amtower: My degrees are in American literature. While I was working on them, I ran a bar. Then I broke my ankle and foot and couldn't tend bar anymore, so I got a job telemarketing. That led to jobs in [direct] telesales. Then I was recruited by a government publication as circulation director, and when I got there, I saw that nobody was paying attention to marketing. That was in '84, and in January 1985 I opened this business. I think there's a lot more open feel to doing business with the government right now. There's a lot more opportunity. A company coming in blind needs me or somebody like me, or they need to make an intelligent hire [to guide marketing].

— Michael Hardy

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In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

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