NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON INTERACTIVE TV - Second wave of interactive TV threatens to bypass agencies

Ad agencies cannot ignore the demand for interactive TV ads, Alasdair Reid says.

If the digital wing of the commercial television business went to the Edinburgh Television Festival hell bent on ambushing the advertising industry, they reckoned without Jim Marshall. Facing a grand indictment that media specialists are innately conservative, to the detriment of all things digital, Marshall completely turned the tables by using a fiendish and thoroughly reprehensible tactic. He admitted that they might have a point there.

It's been a funny old year in digital television. On the one hand, the enhanced TV picture has never been brighter. With Big Brother, the World Cup, Wimbledon and the Commonwealth Games, programme producers have succeeded in proving the point that event TV can be more fun when it's done on a split-screen basis with interactive sidebars and pop-up boxes.

On the other hand, advertisers and agencies haven't exactly been falling over themselves to prove something similar on the advertising side of things. A couple of years back it seemed as if a whole host of big advertisers were about to make major moves in interactive TV. Procter & Gamble and Unilever were beginning to populate the interactive microsite domains of the cable and Sky Digital platforms.

Some advertisers were even experimenting with ads in the main broadcasting stream that had interactive icons allowing you to click through to microsites.

The microsite strategy was largely allied to advertisers' website strategies and when they began to realise brand-specific websites do not really work, their disappointment spilled over into the interactive TV domain too.

OK, so quite a few people got stung - but eventually life goes on, doesn't it? Media owners with a stake in the digital future certainly think so.

And now frustration is evolving into something close to anger. The market has become far too cautious and ad agencies and media specialists are to blame.

Flextech Interactive Digital Sales' managing director, Mark Howe, was part of the main panel discussion at Edinburgh. He argues the whole ad agency system is set up to create conventional TV advertising (and predominantly ITV advertising, come to that) and anything else is too much bother - too time consuming, too labour intensive.

"There are lots of opportunities in interactive TV at the moment - for instance impulse advertising where you don't even have to have a microsite - that aren't being explored. It's like with IT systems in the 80s and the saying that you'd never get fired for choosing IBM, he says.

Howe hints that as advertisers look to reinvigorate their strategies as they come out of the downturn, they will look at innovative ways to approach the digital marketplace. "Agencies could be in danger of losing out if they don't embrace it. It is inevitable that clients will want to embed their message deeply into and behind the programming. An enlightened client looking to achieve that may see the best way forward is to cut out the middle man, he says.

It's the classic chicken and egg scenario though, isn't it? Actually it's more complicated than that because there are three players in this game. Media owners blame agencies; agencies blame clients; clients blame media owners. Or is it the other way around?

When it comes to media owners and their role in all of this, the main bone of contention is that they don't do enough to show that interactive TV works. There aren't enough case histories and those there are tend to be inconclusive.

Jon Williams, the creative director of Publicis Networks, says that this is a red herring if ever there was one. He admits that the agency sector can't duck its responsibility here, and Williams is well placed to talk about this because the agency created Video on Demand Kind of Advertising, which boils down to a catchy VODKA acronym.

Although so far only used by a small client (The Depaul Trust), at least Publicis has pinned its colours to the mast. "It's true that the creative community hasn't grasped this particular bull by the horns," Williams admits. "Advertising agencies have been doing what we've been doing in TV for 40 years or more and in a recession we know exactly what we're going to get from it. Interactive TV is very different in that respect and clients often say they aren't necessarily sure of its worth - the problem is that it's difficult to get metrics."

But the truth is that they can't hide behind metrics - or the lack of them. "It's quite clear that the whole television landscape is changing and it's clear that this whole thing isn't going away, Williams says.

"There are case studies out there. There's also the bald fact of how many homes now have digital. At some point, advertisers and agencies will have to extend the creative product and make a deeper engagement with the consumer."

So, the message perhaps is that the second wave will arrive eventually, whether agencies like it or not. Bill Gash, a director of the Partners in Television consultancy, certainly hopes so. "It might be true that media owners have concentrated more of their efforts on enriching the viewers' experience, thus building loyalty, he says. "But from an agency point of view, it's certainly also true that they might look for reasons not to do anything. It's technically complex, costly and a long process with a supply chain which involves lots of different bits. So it ties up a lot of time both at the sales house and the agency.

"There's a problem of collective will here. But that shouldn't stop the ad industry recognising what's taking place all around them in the TV industry. They at least have to consider innovations. It's clearly an agency responsibility."

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