Interactive TV: TV Ads Without Ad Agencies - Clients appear to be venturing into the brave new world of interactive TV without the help of agencies, Richard Cook says

When Open launched its interactive TV service in the UK last year, it did so with more than 30 clients. It was an impressive achievement.

When Open launched its interactive TV service in the UK last year,

it did so with more than 30 clients. It was an impressive

achievement.



It was even more impressive when you consider that only a couple of

clients had been led to this first foray into the bold new interactive

future by their advertising agency.



Interactive TV might be the medium of the future. It might even spell

the end of the conventional TV ad break as we know it. You would have

thought, therefore, that advertising agencies might have been just a

little bit curious. You would be wrong.



’Clients have always been excited by the potential of the service. It’s

the agency community that has been sceptical or that has largely ignored

it,’ believes Paul Longhurst, managing director at the new-media

consultancy, Quantum.



’Agencies haven’t got involved at all. I think I’m right in saying that

all the companies that have signed up so far - except our clients, like

Domino’s Pizza - have done so by directly approaching Open. In other

words, they have received no advice on how this huge advance in the

advertising landscape will fit in with the rest of their advertising

plans.



These clients go to small new-media agencies for help in designing their

presence on the service but the advice and leadership from their

mainstream agency world is not there. I think agencies are going to live

to regret that.’



In their defence, technological confusion still reigns in the

interactive marketplace, and the bewildering array of platform formats

has hardly helped clarify matters. In addition, cable, which has the

superior technology, better speed and a convenient return path that is

just made for e-commerce and interactivity, has been a byword for inept

marketing for years.



Agencies have learned to be sceptical of interactive TV’s big promises:

promises that are followed by silence. But things are changing. Once

NTL’s pounds 8.2 billion acquisition of Cable & Wireless’s consumer

division goes ahead, change will be even faster. There will then be one

pre-eminent cable brand, which should help clarify matters considerably.

Eventually, there may be one shared operating platform technology for

digital cable.



Indeed, the complexity of the marketplace, combined with the new

medium’s lack of accountability, have been two major factors in scaring

agencies away. No agency, after all, wants to be the one remembered for

advising that their client goes big on something that swiftly turns out

to be the digital equivalent of the Betamax.



As far as the question of accountability goes, though, there is one

bright spot on the horizon. The decision by the Internet Advertising

Bureau to set up a new sub-committee dedicated to digital TV should go

some way to help rectify this particular stumbling block. It will try to

devise a common currency - a simplified blend of existing broadcast and

internet measures that should enable more straightforward accountability

from interactive campaigns. And, of course, allow agencies to

demonstrate their value.



The spectre of mounting post-production costs is something else that has

encouraged agencies to look elsewhere for better advertising value.

Allied Domecq’s vice-president of integrated brand communications,

Patrick Burton, pointed out last year that advertisers wanting to run a

campaign across the five main digital broadcasters - Open, ONdigital,

NTL, Telewest and C&W - might be looking at a total post-production bill

in the order of an unacceptable pounds 35,000. In a new-media landscape

where the client is wary of throwing money away, those sorts of expenses

can be hard to justify.



But there is little doubt that the brutal truth is that clients are

increasingly making their own way into the digital future, with or

without the help of their agency. That situation can hardly be helpful

if it is allowed to continue.



’We found it difficult to find an agency that knew about interactive TV.

We made a mistake when we first set about designing the content of our

interactive TV offering by going to an agency that was really only

experienced in web design,’ admits James Stewart, the interactive

services marketing manager at HSBC, one of the shareholders in the Open

platform. ’When we looked around for more help we found that although

there were lots of agencies that were experienced in web design,

interactive TV was not well served at all. In the end we redid our pages

and used BBC Resources because we felt they had expertise in this

area.’



Finally, if hardly before time, there are some signs that a moribund

agency world is shaking itself into life. It hasn’t yet embraced

interactive TV with the same zeal as it did the internet, but its love

affair might just be about to start.



’We launched Grey Interactive TV in January last year and there was a

fair amount of scepticism that an agency like Grey was doing something

like that,’ explains Grey Interactive TV managing director, Chris

Harrison. ’I can understand why media agencies have not been keen to

launch dedicated interactive TV units - after all, expenditure is not

very high at the moment, nor is it going to be for some time. But I’m

sure that we will see that creative agencies are losing their

inhibitions about the medium and will be fighting to keep up in the

months ahead.’



It may be that the take-up of interactivity in the UK will be more

tentative than anyone has predicted, at least while agencies and clients

work out how best to use the system. So far in France, for example, only

a handful of advertisers have run fully interactive advertising.



’I can’t understand why agencies have turned their back on interactive

TV so far,’ Harrison says. ’But I don’t suppose it will continue for

much longer. Most of Open’s original e-commerce clients did a deal with

the service direct, but that is changing. We helped build the Going

Places service, for example, even though Grey is not the creative agency

for Going Places. That account is actually with CDP. In fact, that is

precisely the sort of thing that can concentrate agency attention on

interactivity wonderfully well.’



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