Kelly: Omaha firm to track reaction to clients' Super Bowl ads

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Posted: Friday, January 31, 2014 12:00 am | Updated: 2:44 pm, Fri May 9, 2014.

A century-old Omaha company will track what's happening during the Super Bowl, and not just to see how many times Peyton Manning shouts “Omaha!”

“We'll work from our laptops, gathering data,” said Todd Murphy, vice president of Universal Information Services. “We'll be counting and measuring, mostly quantifiable statistics.”

No, not Peyton's passing stats, but tweets, blogs, news stories and other responses to clients' TV commercials.

To be sure, the staff also will cock an ear toward the Denver Broncos quarterback, whose mysterious audibles of “Omaha!” at the line of scrimmage have created a phenomenon.

That code word means something to Manning's teammates, and it has meant great attention for Omaha, which spent no money to cause it.

In Murphy's field, such a gift of free publicity is called “organic viral imaging,” bubbling up as a total surprise. The rest of us might translate that to “manna from heaven.”

More than 5,000 articles in newspapers and on TV, radio and the Internet have mentioned Peyton and Omaha since a Jan. 12 playoff game against San Diego in which he audibled “Omaha!” 44 times, setting the Twitterverse agog. (He did so 31 times in the next game. )

But for a long time before that, the downtown firm owned by Murphy and his father, company president Jim Murphy, has been tracking public mentions of people, companies and organizations.

To be exact, for 106 years.

Today it has 30 employees and about 700 clients far and wide, including the European Central Bank, the U.S. Postal Service, Mutual of Omaha and Omaha Steaks.

On any given day, Todd Murphy said, Universal might be tracking mentions of the world's largest big-box retailer, comic movie character Borat's pseudo home in Kazakhstan or a Las Vegas master magician.

Fifteen years ago, one client was Monica Lewinsky in the aftermath of her liaison with President Bill Clinton. Some of the firm's clients are politicians, keeping track of references to themselves and their opponents.

Universal says it predicted President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election based on the number of mentions on social and news media. This week, the company is tracking reaction to the story of hundreds becoming sick on an ocean cruise in the Caribbean.

Though some people jokingly refer to the company as “the clip joint,” its days of actually clipping newspaper articles are past — though a long-handled paper-cutter remains in the sixth-floor offices at 17th and Farnam Streets as a nostalgic relic.

Today, everything is digital.

“A lot of times when we try to hire people and they find out we started in 1908, they think we're a stodgy, old company,” Todd said. “I tell them we operate like a startup. I call it a restart. Every three years we're innovating ourselves for what our clients need and expect.”

Jim Murphy credits his tech-savvy son with keeping the company at the technological forefront, saying Todd “saved my bacon.”

The son, who oversees day-to-day operations as well as research and development, returns the compliment to his dad.

“I tell people he's twice the man I'll ever be,” Todd said. “Reflecting on my 23 years here, he created an environment for us to evolve. He didn't say no, and he didn't put up guidelines and restrictions. He created a positive platform for us to innovate.”

The company was founded in 1908 by Katherine Allen, who clipped and delivered newspaper articles to state legislators. She led the company for more than 50 years, and then hired Jim Murphy, a 24-year-old from the East Coast.

He had graduated from George Washington University in the nation's capital and served in the Army and on a U.S. senator's staff before moving west. He arrived in Omaha in 1959, and within a couple of years took over the company, then called Universal Press Clipping Bureau.

He increased business in part by providing architects, engineers and construction companies with news about possible projects.

In the late 1960s, Murphy thought a friend was playing a joke when he received a call from “the White House.” It was no joke — the administration at the time was calling to contract with Universal because it needed faster access to articles published in newspapers west of the Mississippi.

A 1979 World-Herald article noted that Universal's hundreds of clients ranged from Walt Disney Productions to an ill-fated cult group, the People's Temple of San Francisco.

In that old article, Jim predicted that clipping bureaus soon would monitor television as well as newspapers.

Four years later, Jim bought three VCRs and got help from Todd, then 13, in setting them up at their home to record TV news shows.

In the 1990s, with technology advancing, the company changed its “clipping bureau” name to Universal Information Services. It still follows newspapers and broadcast media but has expanded to all forms of social media.

“We describe ourselves to clients as an extension of their communication team,” said Todd, now 44. “We once were more a supplier or vendor of data. Now we are more consultative, measuring effectiveness.”

Analysis has become more sophisticated. Joining the firm a year and a half ago as an analyst was Jared Troutman, a 1998 high school graduate of Elkhorn Mount Michael who matriculated at the University of Washington in Seattle and earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

Before working at Universal, he analyzed Middle Eastern political entities for a U.S. government contractor.

At 79, Jim Murphy goes to work each day at his office across from the Douglas County Courthouse, with no plan to retire. He has stayed active in civic affairs, and he and Todd each has served as president of the Downtown Rotary.

A retired brigadier general in the Army National Guard, Jim Murphy still serves as a volunteer civilian aide in Nebraska to the secretary of the Army. He helps with veterans issues and other matters.

This weekend, the Murphys and Universal will judge reaction to clients' Super Bowl ads and listen for a famous quarterback calling out “Omaha!”

Whether Peyton Manning's doing so brings tangible benefits to Omaha is debatable. And the thousands of mentions of Peyton and “Omaha!” in the media might be overdone.

But people are having fun with it.

Gate signs and flight-information boards at the Denver International Airport this week listed flights not as going to “Omaha” but to “Omaha!”

An online Canadian gambling site, meanwhile, has set the over/under at 27½ on the number of times Manning will shout “Omaha!” on Sunday in the Super Bowl. (Take the over.)

“It's a good story, a quirky story,” Todd Murphy said, “about a city that a lot of people in the country don't know anything about.”

If Peyton Manning can introduce a few million more people to “Omaha!” on Sunday, most Omahans figure that will be just Super.

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