Media Forum: Has interactive TV grown up?

What do Zip TV's troubles mean to the emerging market, Alasdair Reid asks.

You could argue that Zip TV was the product of a particularly exotic time and place in advertising history - a transitory period in digital television where pioneering new technologies had seemingly called into question the industry's conventional structures.

Zip, which was placed in administration last week, was (and may continue to be, should it find a buyer as a going concern) an interactive TV specialist but it was not really a marketing communications agency as such, more a hybrid sort of organisation that acted a little bit like a media owner and a little bit like a technology consultancy.

It basically allowed advertisers running interactive spots on the Sky Digital platform (including, as it happens, channels sold by Sky Media) to run the back-of-screen technology through servers that were not owned by Sky.

It also (and this is the way in which it acted a bit like a media owner) set up a channel of its own on the Sky platform, which basically acted as a portal for its partner advertisers.

If it sounds complicated, that is because it was. Confusingly so, its critics said. And for Zip, the breaking point was its failure to sign a deal that would have allowed its clients and consortium members to run Zip-managed interactive ads on ITV's digital satellite broadcast stream.

What sort of signal does this send about the future of this sector? Is it a worrying development? Not necessarily, Oliver Cleaver, the European media director of Kimberly-Clark, says. He states: "We tried (interactive television advertising) last year with Pull-Ups and we had a far better response than we had in print or online. So we'll be using it again this year at perhaps three times the level. We have a view that brands like ours need to be more collaborative in terms of their relationship with consumers. Clearly there are lots of things we are still learning and maybe it's true that agencies need to do more in the way of telling us how to do this properly. Obviously there will be a lot of things people try that in hindsight will not be regarded as brilliant. It does take a bit of time. It's perhaps true that unless they are pushed in a new direction, advertisers tend to default to the comfort zone and what they know best. But I think interactive advertising will be worth the effort on our part and on the part of agencies too."

Simon Bevan, Vizeum's head of TV, agrees the Zip situation is arguably a minor setback for interactive TV advertising as a whole. He comments: "Zip provided competition in the marketplace when it was sorely needed and has played an important part in taking the medium to the next step - and I think now we'll see ITV developing its own bandwidth. The key is that advertisers know if the viewer presses red, he or she already has a good disposition towards the product. From an agency point of view, it is on our list of key considerations for any broadcast campaign. From a broadcaster point of view, there is already pressure on inventory because the technology allows for only one interactive ad per break."

However, Toby Hack, the head of OMDtvi, argues it is time to take the game up a level. He says: "We should recognise the increasing role that interactive already plays but that shouldn't make us reluctant to push this whole area harder. We shouldn't be afraid, for instance, of continuing to offer consumers as many response routes as possible and to keep asking them what they think about this area. Meanwhile, I think that we will continue to see more investment in different sorts of infrastructure and it's probably true that mobile technologies will continue to grow in importance."

Gary Knight, the brand partnership director at ITV, agrees with that particular angle. He reveals ITV will continue to favour a multi-pronged approach, with a big emphasis on mobile technologies. He concludes: "This is an effective route - since introducing a generic mobile text number for advertisers recently, we've been pleasantly surprised at the response - perhaps because it makes the business so straightforward. The question, from our point of view, is how you can ensure that interactive advertising can take place across all platforms - and different types of viewers will want to interact in different ways. Some advertisers may feel that certain types of interactivity are not entirely appropriate for them, so if you decide to go one route, the danger is that you might begin to exclude others."

NO - Oliver Cleaver, European media director, Kimberley-Clark

"We're moving to a situation where one-third of brands in the UK have now used it. But it's probably like the first two or three years of TV advertising (back in the 50s). We're just starting to explore (the possibilities)."

YES - Simon Bevan, head of TV, Vizeum

"We have seen year-on-year growth, with more advertisers getting involved. Previously, it was a nice thing to add on and was there mainly as a direct response tool and for data capture. Now it is being used more as a brand tool."

NO - Toby Hack, head, OMDtvi

"Perhaps what happened last week will now allow us to take stock and even do some soul searching. That's no criticism of what has gone before - and Sky continues to be proactive in all aspects of digital TV. But maybe we need to offer a step-change."

MAYBE - Gary Knight, brand partnership director, ITV

"We absolutely believe interactive TV advertising is not only here to stay but is going to grow. In TV terms, there's a range of ways to approach it: hardcore interactivity with a return path to a softer way with a mobile text number."

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