Like every millennial in college, Mac Nagaswami was immersed in high tech, his world a digital swirl of cellphones, social media, and Internet portals. That's what made his approach to business seem so last century.
His market research in summer 2012, as he prepared to start his junior year at the University of Delaware, involved going door-to-door in neighborhoods around campus, recording answers to his questions on a clipboard. Chief among them: Would you be willing to drive around with an ad affixed to the outside of your car for money?
Nagaswami got so many affirmative responses that he launched a company soon after. Wilmington-based Carvertise is, however, a far drive from low tech.
Using algorithms, analytics, and global positioning systems, it has a unique take on vehicle-wrap advertising - Carvertising, if you will - that is heavy on return-on-investment data for clients that want to know their advertising is reaching eyeballs.
Among the information Carvertise's software provides clients is how much mileage was driven and where, and how many estimated impressions - viewings of their ads - were generated. It charges $2.50 to $5.25 for every 1,000 impressions.
That's enabled by GPS installed in each Carvertise driver's vehicle, overlaid with data on traffic counts, the rate of speed of that traffic, and population density in the areas where the drivers are traveling.
Part of Carvertise's business model is to make delivery of that information feel less corporate and more personal, tapping into the rise of the sharing-economy trend popularized by such extra-earnings enablers as Airbnb and Uber.
Carvertise does not have staff drivers but uses ordinary people with good driving records, 2005 model-year vehicles or newer, and commuting minimums of 800 miles a month, and additional driving is not expected beyond what they regularly do.
Their cars are wrapped with the advertising, sparing Carvertise the expense of owning and maintaining a fleet of vehicles.
"What we're bringing to the market is a very new advertising channel," said Nagaswami, 25, CEO of a company of 12 employees with clients in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. They include Jefferson Health, ShopRite, United Way, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Discover Bank.
"It's taking outdoor advertising and making it more grassroots," Nagaswami said.
Vehicle wraps aren't new, but the technology-enhanced service Carvertise offers is - and might be blessed with perfect timing, said Marc Brownstein, president and CEO of Brownstein Group, a Philadelphia branding agency.
"The stars may have aligned for Mac and Carvertise," said Brownstein, who knows Nagaswami through a mutual friend and has mentored him. Brownstein even foresees an opportunity for Carvertise that doesn't involve anyone behind the wheel: the advent of autonomous driving.
"We're about to embark upon an era where Uber cars are going to be driverless," Brownstein said. "Can they be billboards?"
That's considered at least 10 years off, industry observers say. For now, drivers are an essential ingredient to the Carvertise experience, said cofounder Greg Star, 24, also a University of Delaware graduate. He joined Nagaswami in business after the latter spoke about it as a guest lecturer at one of Star's classes at Delaware.
"You're using the everyday community member to represent a brand," Star said. "It's just a whole new way that advertisers can communicate with the public."
In advertising, variety is critical to reach a range of audiences with different media habits, said Betsy Ostroff, vice president at Harmelin Media in Bala Cynwyd, one of the region's largest ad agencies.
"We have lots of different clients with lots of different objectives," Ostroff said. "What we do is fit our best recommendation with the marketing goals and objectives of a client."
One of those clients, Jefferson Health, just concluded a Carvertise campaign that from September through December deployed 30 wrapped vehicles throughout the city and nearby towns to raise awareness about an urgent-care center opened in March at the Smylie Times Building on Rhawn Street in Northeast Philadelphia.
Among the drivers was Irene Robinson, 55, a home-services provider from Delaware County who used her silver Kia Soul.
For Robinson, the role of brand ambassador of sorts for Jefferson was a comfortable fit. She's had a long history with the health-care provider: in high school as a volunteer in its ophthalmology lab, and later as a patient at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where her daughter was born.
"Some people think I'm a nurse," she said in recounting the reactions to her wrapped car in parking lots and gas stations.
The income from Carvertise - a flat rate of $100 a month - paid for gas, "frivolous" purchases, and outings with her two young granddaughters, she said.
"It is a great concept," Robinson said. "I wish I came up with it."
In a statement, Jefferson's marketing department said: "We've seen great success with traditional methods like social media, digital marketing, and billboards, and vehicle wrapping is another way to have a presence on the ground in the communities we serve."
Such connections are key to the buy-local movement, said Tom Wingert, marketing director for City Fitness, a health-club franchise with four locations in Philadelphia. He plans to use Carvertise to get the word out about a fifth gym, opening in Fishtown in September.
Although "digital marketing is absolutely the wave of the future," said Wingert, 28, a big user of social media in his work, "I view all outdoor advertising as stuff that amplifies what I'm doing."
The Carvertise analytics enable him to measure the exposure of his advertising far more than is possible with an ad on a SEPTA bus, he said.
Though Carvertise launched in 2013, last year was the first that both Nagaswami and Star were out of school and able to devote their full time to the company, which has attracted "six figures" in capital from local investors, Nagaswami said.
Total 2015 revenue of $210,000 was surpassed in just the first month of 2016, he said. Higher education, health care, and state agencies have provided the most growth opportunities, he added.
Amid a rapidly changing advertising landscape where, as Nagaswami put it, "audiences are building en masse online," why did he see potential in advertising on wheels?
"There is one industry in Media Land that has managed to sidestep these tectonic shifts: outdoor advertising," Nagaswami said. "Audience levels haven't changed much. John Doe and Jane Roe still have to drive to get to work, and they still walk downtown to get to their favorite restaurant."
BY THE NUMBERS
19,336 drivers, in 4 states, paid $100 a month per car.