Close-Up: Live Issue - Do ad agencies get interactive TV?

BBC Broadcast and ITV Sales are on a mission to open agency eyes to the medium.

This week, Smirnoff vodka launched an interactive ad created by JWT on Sky Digital. It is the first interactive work from the drinks giant Diageo, and a clear statement by JWT that it is willing and able to produce work in media beyond its traditional TV and print heartland.

Such willingness is unusual, though, if the interactive TV industry is to be believed. The perception of ad agency creatives is that they're either oblivious to the power of interactive TV, or too set in their ways to accept that change is inevitable. There have been more than 750 interactive campaigns on Sky Digital; they're not going away.

To address this perceived apathy, BBC Broadcast, the creative services arm that the BBC sold earlier this year, has joined forces with ITV Sales' interactive department to sell the advantages of interactive ads to creative departments. The two companies believe that, in general, interactive ads fail creatively because ad agencies view interactivity as something to be bolted on to the finished work, rather than incorporated into the original idea.

Peter Birch, the head of ITV Sales' interactive division, says unless creatives start offering interactive as part of their initial ideas, they risk losing contact with brands they have worked on for years and understand better than anyone.

"We want creative agencies to come to us for advice on building fantastic interactive campaigns so we can expand the revenue stream and really get consumers interested in brands," he says.

The response has been mixed: "On the whole, the creatives we've met have been very receptive to our ideas, but it is going to take time until all agencies offer good creative ideas for interactive work."

Simon Smith, the creative partner at Weapon7, the interactive production company that created the interactive Smirnoff ad with JWT, argues that reticence is natural when companies such as ITV and BBC Broadcast come knocking. "ITV and BBC Broadcast make their money from selling this medium, so they have their own reasons for pushing it," he says. Steven Hess, Weapon7's managing partner, adds: "People think interactive is just about advertising. It isn't. It's about grabbing people's attention and keeping them inside the brand for as long as possible."

In JWT's new Smirnoff campaign, the viewer can press the red button to view three different versions of the ad. At no time are they offered a brochure or asked to sign up to a mailing list. However, there is no way to measure the effectiveness of this approach. At least with a request for more information there's some tangible feedback.

The creative director of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, Ben Priest, says: "The Smirnoff ad's success will depend on how good the first segment is. If that fails to attract attention, it won't make sense and the ad will pass the consumer by like a goose farting in the fog."

However, research commissioned by ITV and BBC Broadcast, which compared viewers of 15 interactive ads and 15 "traditional" TV ads, shows that the former generated a 55 per cent rise in brand awareness and boosted propensity to purchase by 144 per cent.

Such results are translating into a desire by clients, such as Diageo, to try interactive. And this is causing agency creatives to come to terms with the medium, albeit slowly.

"One day, someone will grab the mantle and do it properly. Then the rest of the industry will panic, throw money at it and probably do it badly," Priest says.

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CREATIVE AGENCY - Ben Priest, creative director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"The industry is not embracing interactive TV enough: there are too few agencies looking at unusual disciplines and a lot of it comes down to recruitment policies.

"A lot of young creatives just want to focus on print and TV, and agencies fill their offices with these people. As an industry, we need to be recruiting staff from different backgrounds with different skills - then, everyone will learn from each other. The agencies that do interesting work are the agencies that employ interesting people."

INTERACTIVE TV SALES - Peter Birch, head of interactive, ITV Sales

"Agencies need to stop seeing interactive as a scary, technology-based solution. TV is changing and interactive isn't niche any more.

"Agencies have the ability to do great work but, at the moment, it seems that most interactive content is just bolted on to a 30-second TV spot. Agency creatives need to start getting into the process at the very beginning, so the idea is totally integrated. Interactive should not be treated as a separate medium.

"If agencies continue to rely on using outside companies to handle the interactive elements of campaigns, they risk losing control of the brands they know and understand."

CLIENT - James Pennefather, brand director, Smirnoff vodka

"Brands are beginning to move towards interactive and are looking for new ways to innovate. In my experience, agencies see interactive way down the list of advertising avenues.

"With JWT, once we said we wanted interactive, they went away and came up with this idea and were really behind the project from the start. We're really impressed with what they've produced. What clients are looking for is proof that a good idea can be made into good creative; no-one wants a bolt-on piece of creative."

INTERACTIVE TV AD AGENCY - Andrew Howells, joint managing partner, Zip TV

"With large agencies, it is more difficult to get them to work on interactive. It's like turning round an oil tanker once it's moving. Creative agencies need to be more like media agencies, which are well on board with the idea of interactive.

"A lot of creatives are just interested in winning awards. But if they start putting their ideas into interactive, when it becomes mainstream they will have more opportunities to pick up awards. At the moment, the quality of interactive creative work is not good enough."