Bank One's Wingspanbank.com, for example, is run by marketers, from one-time pickle pushers to credit card hustlers. And Wingspan's former management, who had come mainly from Bank One's First USA credit card unit, are now setting up a new Web bank, Juniper Financial.
Not just the cyber banks themselves, but even suppliers to down-to-earth banks with Internet offerings, seem to be wholly taken over by marketers. These gurus seem to think there is no limit to the amount of "selling" the American people can take.
Among those testing how much the market can bear is Encirq Corp., a startup that describes itself as an "on-line marketing services company."
Its gimmick is that information used to direct pin-pointed marketing to a consumer is held on the consumer's own computer, theoretically protecting his or her privacy. It calls its product "Illuminated Statements," which "converts online reports from banks, credit card issuers and other online report providers into interactively, graphically enhanced marketing media."
In other words, when bank customers open their electronic banking or credit card statements, they'll be hit by a blistering attack of ads based on their previous buying and shopping.
But Charles R. Walker, general partner in Chase Capital Partners, the New York-based bank's venture capital unit, says consumer research indicates that most Americans will like the approach. "It's tailored to their needs," Walker says.
"People see it as a service rather than as an intrusion. A new mother appreciates it when she receives pinpointed ads for, say diapers; it's the same with a guy who owns a BMW, or a person who shops regularly at Nordstrom."
Walker is putting his bank's money where his mouth is. At the end of September, Chase Capital Partners invested $11.5 million in Encirq. That brought Chase's total investment in the company to $14.5 million. Its initial $3 million investment was made by Hambrecht & Quist before the high tech-oriented securities firm was purchased by Chase. Walker had been with H&Q before the acquisition.
Chase is not the only big venture capitalist pouring money into Encirq. Its latest investment was part of a $37 million injection of equity capital by five other institutional investors, including. Perhaps most important was that Financial Technology Ventures, a consortium of about 20 banks and financial services companies, also took part in the funding.
"Banks are the litmus test," says Walker. Banks are conservative, he says; "they loathe to change things." But, he adds, "they seem excited about it. They are all eager to send people their credit card statements electronically. It would save them money." In addition, "now they see it as a way to generate a small amount of income."
To be sure, the excitement is there. "We are gaining momentum with our business model and this recent round of funding has brought further validation to our client-side solution for private, personalized marketing," says Mark Vogel, Encirq's president and CEO.
Still, there's no guarantee. Will the public really enjoy the latest bombardment of advertising, or will they resent it? It's too early to tell.
As Walker says, "Genius is in the eyes of the historian."