DIGITAL TV: THE MULTICHANNEL MAZE - Digital has arrived - what are the media agencies going to do about it? Richard Cook asks industry figures how they intend to adapt to this ’revolution’

For those of you getting a little blase about revolution in these eventful times, here’s the news - the latest, and possibly the greatest, one is all but upon us. Hundreds of extra channels, interactive television, home shopping - it’s all coming our way and we don’t even have to leave our chairs to get it.

For those of you getting a little blase about revolution in these

eventful times, here’s the news - the latest, and possibly the greatest,

one is all but upon us. Hundreds of extra channels, interactive

television, home shopping - it’s all coming our way and we don’t even

have to leave our chairs to get it.



It’s the digital age. But you knew all that. By now agency bosses will

have seen representatives from almost every broadcaster detailing - and

praising - the myriad advantages of going digital. Indeed clients will

probably also have been briefed, while research papers will have been

prepared, presented and inwardly digested. But what are agencies

actually doing to go digital?



How is digital affecting the way that the companies that monitor media

every single day go about their jobs? Is this digital revolution really

just like the new-media revolution, or the satellite television

revolution, or every other revolution in media that happens with

bewildering frequency - as some cynics claim? Or is it something more

than that? The answer, it seems, is different across the agency board.

Everyone has a digital strategy - but no-one, so far, has quite the same

one.



’If you are asking me how we have changed or are changing our structure

to cope with digital, I would say we haven’t changed it in the

slightest,’ Graham Duff, the chief executive of Zenith Media, says.

’Fundamentally, though, there is a lot of confusion for the consumer and

this is our main consideration. And again, vitally important issues,

such as how the digital audience will be measured - issues that will, to

a large extent, determine how we trade - are still up in the air. But we

wouldn’t set up a separate operation just because Sky has launched its

digital service. I’m sure both the people who have watched Sky Digital

so far have enjoyed it but that sort of operational shift doesn’t make

commercial sense for us at this stage.



’When representatives from Sky and Flextech have been in to present to

us, they’ve talked to our TV department and to Ian Lewis in programme

evaluation. And, at this point, there is clearly no need for us to incur

any additional costs in looking after digital. Clearly, what I don’t

want are time buyers arguing over 0.001 per cent of ratings.’



For at least one other media agency, though, this sort of response is

typical of the lack of planning and resources the bigger agencies devote

to digital.



’Most agencies will, at best, simply be chucking one person at it,’

Steve Booth, the managing partner of Booth Lockett Makin, says. ’ They

are worried that they are going to take a bath, that they will chuck a

load of money at the problem and get nothing back. So they will - at the

very best - put someone in charge, give them a title like head of

digital and don’t expect it to be terribly important.



’But then it’s always the same with any new media - it was the same with

things such as on-the-run colour in magazines. Agencies feel they should

know something about it so that they can convince their clients that

they are on the case but, in reality, they don’t think it is going to be

very significant. Unfortunately, digital TV isn’t like that. At BLM, we

are in the process of reorganising our entire agency structure over the

next few weeks to position ourselves for the digital age, to put digital

at the heart of the process. Most media companies, I suspect, are

working on ways to bring digital into the standard mix. Actually digital

will be about much more than that. This is real. Digital TV cannot be

absorbed into the mainstream because this will be the new mainstream.

The larger agencies are underestimating it because they are too rigidly

structured along the traditional media models. They are the ones that

are going to be caught flat-footed if all they do is try to suggest to

clients that they have got everything covered.’



The details of Booth’s own plans at BLM are still under wraps until the

structure is finalised in the next few months, but the brutal economic

realities suggest that a smaller agency is going to find it harder to

devote resources to something everyone is agreed will be a drain on

funds, at least in the short term.



As a result, other agencies prefer to adopt a more pragmatic viewpoint,

simply treating the whole of digital TV as another part of the media mix

until it grows to a sufficient size to make anything else

practicable.



’All of our people are in charge of specialist accounts and it’s their

responsibility to co-ordinate handling of that facility,’ Paul Taylor,

the managing director of BMP Optimum, says. ’So someone will look after

Carlton UK sales, for example. For digital, we have done the same. We’ve

made Matthew Veitch, one of our TV buying managers, the ears and eyes of

the company on digital and responsible for reporting to all of us. In

addition, we have Richard Foster at Optimum View to assess the product

placement, bartering and programme affinity opportunities that digital

might present in the early days. Basically, what we have done is

expanded the way that we grew to cope with channels Four, Five and the

multichannel homes. I think it’s important not to get too carried away

with the exciting possibilities of digital too early. At the end of the

day, it is just more media and we know how to deal with that. Obviously

things will change as digital grows, but for now it’s important that we

integrate it quickly and efficiently into our overall media

structure.’



It’s a sentiment echoed by David Cuff, the TV director at the Unilever

media buying agency, Initiative Media, who believes agencies have

already learned a great deal about adapting to change by looking at the

existing fragmented TV marketplace.



’We are already organised for multi-channel TV and I think digital,

initially at least, will be an extension of that. The NOMAD system copes

well with multi-channel homes and there is no reason why it can’t cope

with digital. One thing that will have to change is that we will all

have to get more productive, but then we have been working on

proprietary software that will enable us to do this - it adjusts to as

many target programmes as we input, and I’m sure the other big agencies

are doing the same. The other thing to note is that there will be no

digital unique ratings until at least 100 of the BARB panel are

reporting, which equates to about half a million homes, and that won’t

happen until March. The fact is we are used to buying a lot of telly and

that is what we are going to have to continue to do in this so-called

digital age.’



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