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