CAMPAIGN-I: Spotlight on: Interactive TV ads - Critics have field day with first generation of interactive ads. The pioneers of interactive ads are not the agencies but the advertisers and the platforms

You could argue that it’s quite reassuring to find creative standards in new media taking something of a bashing - it’s a sign that people are starting to take this whole sector more seriously. A couple of weeks back, online advertising formats (banner, basically) were under fire. And at a conference last week, it was the turn of interactive television to be put under the critical microscope.

You could argue that it’s quite reassuring to find creative

standards in new media taking something of a bashing - it’s a sign that

people are starting to take this whole sector more seriously. A couple

of weeks back, online advertising formats (banner, basically) were under

fire. And at a conference last week, it was the turn of interactive

television to be put under the critical microscope.



And, of course, if you’ve a mind to be critical, this is like shooting

fish in a barrel. The technology is in its infancy, the functionalities

involved are complex and basically there’s an awful lot that can go

wrong.



Thing is, it’s probably going to get even more complicated when the

cable companies get their acts together and roll out their platforms in

full (all incompatible, naturally) to rival the only real player at

present - Open.



The good news is that where Open is concerned, things may be getting

simpler. Last week, having acquired full control of Open, BSkyB was

expected to begin merging its sales team with its Sky airtime sales

unit.



And this, of course, takes us to the very heart of the creative

challenge - on the agency side, interactive TV demands a similar merger

of spot advertising and digital domain skills. You not only have to

produce a commercial but you have to produce a relevant destination site

in the interactive domain - in Open’s case, a ’walled garden’ that looks

a little bit like the internet but actually isn’t. Open is ’closed’ in

that respect. It won’t let you stray far.



Creatively, the challenge is to create an interactive domain of quality

- and one that doesn’t undermine the brand message of a carefully

crafted commercial.



But as Andrew Howells, the managing director of BMPTVi, says, that isn’t

happening: ’Advertising agencies clearly aren’t getting involved to the

extent that we’d like. It is a piecemeal process and the truth is that

we haven’t had a proper interactive TV ad yet in this country. We’ve

seen all sorts of people trying to re-engineer web content and put it on

a TV screen - as if that’s really going to satisfy anyone. And we’re

also just shoehorning commercials into the interactive medium.’



One of the most uncomfortable examples of ’shoehorning’ was the much

vaunted Chicken Tonight spot, which ran as the first interactive

campaign on Sky.



Unfortunately, the interactive material that appeared over the

commercial (created by the platform provider) obscured much of what was

happening on screen.



Richard Forbes-Robertson, the head of production at the interactive TV

agency Phosphorous, agrees this is one of the biggest lessons learned so

far: ’Re-purposing commercials doesn’t work. It’s as simple as that. So

far, the creative ideas and the creative executions in interactive have

been dreadful. But you have to put your toe in the water, don’t

you?’



Like many in the business, Forbes-Robertson points out that this

industry won’t spring into being overnight - the technology, after all,

is barely beyond teething stage. An investment commitment may seem a big

act of faith: ’The problem at the moment is that if you envisaged

producing a campaign across all the possible platforms, the back-end

costs would be very expensive. There’s a lot of work to be done in

simplifying the industry.



I think what we might see is people shooting commercials in two formats,

two sizes, one for interactive and the other for non-interactive. And we

shouldn’t forget that, for the foreseeable future, 90 per cent of TV

spots won’t be interactive.’



In other words, for a big investment, expect a potentially small

return.



Forbes-Robertson predicts that the real running will be made by

advertisers rather than agencies. He adds: ’Agencies don’t tend to take

the lead on this sort of thing for a number of reasons, one of which is

the fact that they have cut right back and they don’t have the strategic

thinkers that they used to. We see it as our role to bridge the gap

between media owners and advertisers.’



But, as many acknowledge, even when a campaign does get the go-ahead,

the creative community is a very long way from imposing its vision on

this arena. Yes, there’s a limited amount you can do at present in the

interactive domain (some of it looks no better than enhanced teletext),

but on the other hand, many advertisers are happy to let Sky do most of

the design and production work, with somewhat predictable results.



Yet Paul Longhurst, managing director of Quantum New Media Services,

which has run interactive campaigns for a number of clients, says we

shouldn’t seek to run before we can walk.



He states: ’It strikes me that the people who are doing the criticising

are precisely the sorts of people who haven’t done anything at all

yet.



And it’s probably true that the creativity is the last problem that will

get solved. We’ve a lot to sort out first. For instance, do you know

whether you’ll be able to handle the sort of demand that there will be

if your ad works well? You have to take a pragmatic approach in the

early days but I’m absolutely convinced that the creativity will follow.

I think it’s best to applaud what people have done so far. It’s better

to be learning than doing nothing at all.’



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