Opinion: Perspective - TV provides the springboard for digital to flourish

A few weeks ago, I had one of those table-thumping lunches that reassure me there's still enough passion and commitment in this business to see the best ad people through the current economic challenges.

My table thumper was a wise senior creative with a great reputation beyond question. I'm going to keep him anonymous and you'll perhaps see why.

The thing that most excited the passions of my fellow diner was all things digital. Not because he was obsessed by the opportunities, but because he was worried by others' obsession. Television is still - at its best - the most powerful commercial communications tool, he thundered. And it's about time the industry got digital advertising in perspective.

Hmm. I suspect his agency would rather such a bold, bald view remained a personal one. Agencies (and anyone else) cannot afford to wave a big flag for old media at a time when to do so instantly labels you as behind-the-times.

And, really, the world is digital, so it's almost hardly a point worth debating. TV will soon enough be only digital, for goodness sake. In fact, I can confidently predict that the word "digital" will soon become obsolete because it will become an unnecessary descriptor (which surely raises something of a dilemma for those agencies that still call themselves digital and assume this will continue to differentiate their proposition).

Anyway, as always the truth lies somewhere in the middle. TV is still immensely powerful - and currently a wonderful bargain buy - but it is even more powerful if stretched online. The best programmes, like the best ads, are content that can and should be as platform-neutral as possible. My lunch date knows this, too, but his point is really about redressing the hype balance.

In that, he's got some fine ammunition already this year, leaving aside the sad news that ITV has just axed Heartbeat because it has fallen victim to the ad slump. For starters, a new Thinkbox report has found that television viewing is at a record high, matching the 26 hours a week record of 2003. That means that, on average, we each saw 42 ads every day last year, and viewing to commercial channels was up 36 minutes per day on 2007.

Then Sky is doing its bit for unemployment stats by announcing plans to hire 1,000 engineers and call centre staff as it gears up for a major high-definition TV subs push. And that comes on the back of adding 171,000 new customers over Christmas and a 6 per cent increase in revenue in the last half of the year to £2.6 billion.

Then some of the TV ads released this month have notched up phenomenal viewings on YouTube. Saatchi & Saatchi's compelling T-Mobile flashmob ad has had a staggering three million hits and counting. Fallon's Cadbury "eyebrows", out less than a week, has so many posted versions and remixes on YouTube that, frankly, I can't be bothered to add up all the viewings. It's an eye-watering sum, though.

Would either ad have excited so much online attention without the TV platform from which to lift-off? Unlikely. Television still has the unique ability to provide a shared cultural experience that remains the most potent start-point for many advertisers.

But TV still cannot provide the opportunities for consumers to play with ads and brands that the web can. For all the attempts at interactivity, TV remains a one-way medium for most of us. The deeper joy of the T-Mobile and Cadbury ads is that the web allows us to share, review and manipulate them.

Back to my lunch date and his mission to champion TV in the face of the digital revolution. What he really means, I know, is that TV needs to become once again the medium clients want to experiment with, take risks with and creatively celebrate. Of the 42 TV ads we see every day, how many do that? And how many have a big idea powerful enough to leap from the TV to really live on the web?

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