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Shirley Leung

This ‘Brand-a-thon’ could lead to some beautiful relationships

When old Boston caught up with new Boston, sparks flew — and in a good way.

For months, Kathy Kiely, president of The Ad Club, and David Chang, chief operating officer of PayPal Media Network, had been running into each other at events. Kiely has been around forever and a day in the local Mad Men (and now Women) scene, and for a while she’s wanted the century-old club to get more involved with startups. She just couldn’t figure out how.

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In March, she read about PayPal’s Start Tank, an incubator housed at its International Place office where nearly two dozen startups have set up shop. Here was her shot: In the tradition of a “hack-a-thon” — at which developers solve a coding problem over a weekend — why not sponsor a “brand-a-thon” and enlist creative types to spend a week coming up with a marketing plan for a young tech company?

And just like that, these two worlds that have been colliding are now collaborating. The Brand-a-thon, featuring eight advertising agencies and 18 startups, launches Friday.

“The startups have no marketing help at all,” said Kiely, “and then we have all these brilliant agencies, the well-established building big Fortune 100 brands, and they weren’t connecting.”

It was an easy sell, despite the fact people had to give up their weekends and work for free. Hill Holliday, Allen & Gerritsen, and MMB are among the agencies participating.

The teams will hear pitches from the startups and then pick one to represent. The creative folks will spend a week developing a marketing plan that includes everything from how to position the brand to coming up with a tagline. They’ll also provide six months of mentoring.

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At the end, a panel of judges will critique the pitches, and the winning team will get a $2,500 cash prize, courtesy of Santander Bank.

For the agencies involved, it’s a chance to get a look at what could be the next Kayak or iRobot. But it’s a tough assignment: Startups are typically starving for money, and marketing is a low priority. When there is a budget, it’s so tiny you have to get it right the first time.

“If you are McDonald’s or Bank of America, you can bet on every roulette number on the table — TV, run banner ads, test mobile. They can afford to say let’s try this, let’s try that,” said Doug Gould, the creative director at Allen & Gerritsen. “If you are a startup you have one chip on the table . . . you can’t afford to miss.”

But beyond the startups getting marketing muscle they couldn’t otherwise afford, my hope is that Brand-a-thon will get more of old Boston to take notice of the new Boston that’s sprouting up all around them.

When PayPal moved into International Place 18 months ago, it infused the buttoned-up Financial District building with freewheeling tech culture, including the incubator. The company, owned by eBay, signed up for more space than it needed with the idea that it would eventually grow. Rather than having empty cubicles, Chang filled them with startups, letting them squat for up to 12 months, giving them space and mentors.

It was informal at first, Chang said, with a selection process that boiled down to looking for “high potential, no jerks.” Now, there’s a formal application and preference is given to startups related to ecommerce, which dovetails with what PayPal does.

Boston’s Start Tank is the biggest effort to help startups at eBay, and it’s a program that will go global. Start Tank Boston is now accepting its next class, and applications for classes at its offices in London and Chennai, India, will open in early summer.

“We have been trailblazing in Boston,” said Chang sitting in PayPal’s office, which features white boards and the occasional scooter.

What PayPal gets out of this is insight into emerging online spaces. For example, a company called coeverywhere feeds you tweets coming from one location, be it Newbury Street or Times Square. Others are making more traditional consumer plays — Project 2020 provides door-to-door eyecare, and Gloss48, is a website for niche beauty brands.

And when these companies make it and consider going to Silicon Valley, the hope is they will stay here and remember that Boston is a welcoming place to build a brand.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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