Putting the Drag in WebEx's Ad Campaign
By Jodi Mardesich

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It makes perfect sense for a drag queen to act as a spokesperson for a cosmetics company or a shoe company, and RuPaul has done both with aplomb. But where's the synergy in having the glamorous 6-foot 7-inch singer/model/actress hawk an Internet-based virtual-meeting service?

By hiring RuPaul, WebEx, in San Jose, has shown once again just how far Web companies are willing to go to stand out in the crowd of venture-capital-rich dot-coms. Of the $25 million WebEx raised in its Series C round of funding, it will spend somewhere between $17 and $19 million on marketing, much of which will pay for television, print, and radio ads spiced up by a sassy queen. The tag line? "Meetings don't have to be a drag."

RuPaul's not just a figurehead, she claims; she's an actual WebEx user. "I was very impressed," she says, standing in four-inch Marc Jacobs backless pumps, with cobalt and lime feather boas (WebEx's colors) gracefully draped over her forearm. "I just moved to Los Angeles," she explains, "and all my stylists are in New York." Using WebEx, RuPaul can confer with them about the style, color, or fabric of a new dress without having to be in the same room. She can also use it to check out new wig styles. "Make it bigger," she imagines she'll say.

There's no question that RuPaul gets attention. But is this the way for WebEx to get the right kind of attention?

The challenge for WebEx, explains Subrah Iyar, its chairman and CEO, is getting people to try its service. Before RuPaul's, uh, reign, that was quite a challenge. Say the word "meeting," and eyes glaze over. Meetings are boring--a waste of time. Of course, WebEx is neither. You download some software that plugs into your browser, and suddenly people in different physical locations can look at the same document and discuss changes as they're being made. They can talk on the phone, even though the calls are being sent via the Web. Iyar believes that once people try WebEx, they'll be hooked.

It worked for RuPaul. She even used WebEx to meet with company officials to begin hammering out details of the contract. "Are they paying you in WebEx stock?" I ask, crooking my head back to gaze up at her face. Her answer makes me feel even shorter. "A lady never speaks about financial arrangements at a party," she sniffs. I turn to David Thompson, WebEx's vice president of marketing, hoping he'll shed some light on the deal. "I'm a lady too," he proclaims.

For now, RuPaul will be shooting WebEx print ads and taping radio spots. And she'll appear in a TV commercial that WebEx plans to run during the Super Bowl. Says RuPaul: "It will give me a new reason to watch football."

--Jodi Mardesich

This story first appeared in FORTUNE's online column Valley Talk.