SUPPLEMENT: WORLDWIDE ADVERTISING; Does the superhighway have a global future?

The information superhighway - what is it exactly and what will it mean to advertisers and agencies? Is it an opportunity or a threat? There is certainly no room for complacency, Steve Shipside reports

The information superhighway - what is it exactly and what will it mean

to advertisers and agencies? Is it an opportunity or a threat? There is

certainly no room for complacency, Steve Shipside reports

‘It’s not about some zippy phone line. My definition of the information

superhighway is deeper. Ultimately, it is no more and no less than

everyone in the world having access to the sum total of our knowledge.’

For Kai Krause, the managing director of Meta Tools Inc, to ignore the

information superhighway is to choose the path to extinction. Every inch

the modern soundbite virtuoso, he concludes that ‘the information

highway will change the future of our species’.

OK, sounds good, but first someone has to explain exactly what the

information superhighway, or I-way to its friends, is all about. At one

end of the scale, the digerati expect it to usher in some kind of global

gestalt of computerised consciousness. To the likes of Warner and

Disney, it seems to be mainly about providing video on demand - a hi-

tech way of bankrupting the Blockbuster Video chain of shops. To Joe

Public, it is generally presumed (wrongly) to be the Internet.

John Browning, the executive editor of Wired UK, gives as good a

definition as you get. ‘It is not the Internet, it is what the Internet

will become - a high bandwidth Internet, a network of networks with more

capacity to send video, sound and all the stuff the [largely text-based]

Net can’t handle. It will be multi-way interactive, unlike broadcasting,

or phone-to-phone communication.’

Physically, the highway will run along any of a vast range of diverse

delivery technologies. These can be satellite, microwave, cable or

radio. Since it would take decades to replace them, much of the data

will be sent down good old-fashioned copper wires, but using new

technologies that package up the data and send it more efficiently. ‘The

backbone will be fibre optic,’ Browning reckons, ‘and end-user

connections will probably include ISDN via high bandwidth options like

SMDS, and ADSL with ATM as the all-singing network glue.’ For those who

feel that Browning slips into acronymic incoherence here, there’s worse

to come. Superhighway infrastructure is geek heaven. In geekworld, only

the foot soldiers are still talking about modems, ethernet and the Web.

The visionaries have moved on to SMDS, ADSL, VDSL, HDSL and ATM (see

glossary, page 18).

Confused? No? Then you’re obviously not paying attention. But the good

news for agencies is that they don’t have to. Unless their major clients

happen to be cable manufacturers, they can afford to treat the

technicalities of delivery systems with the lofty indifference they

deserve. There are few account managers who can explain the workings of

a cathode ray tube, but that doesn’t stop them working for television.

It doesn’t matter which technologies carry the information, as long as

they have the bandwidth to manage the combination of video, audio and

text. As Browning says: ‘It’s an evolving capacity thing - we won’t turn

around one day and find it there. Things are already changing. The first

step was text and graphics, the next step will be text, graphics and


This isn’t science fiction, nor some elaborate nerd wish-fulfilment -

that ‘evolving capacity’ is further down the line than you imagine. Take

your phone. Is it tone dialling, composing ice-cream van-type music as

you press the buttons? Then you’re on an ISDN-enabled exchange.

Actually, you’d be hard pushed to find one that isn’t, although right

now you would have to go out and buy the DSL connection to use that

function. If you took away the regulations that forbid BT making money

as a content supplier, we would probably all wake up to find Bob Hoskins

handing out free DSLs tomorrow.

There are already plenty of working examples of the converging worlds of

communications, computing and entertainment. The latest Nokia portable

phone includes a screen and doubles as an Internet browser. There are

pilot schemes of video on demand in Paris and, less glamorously,

Colchester. A service called C: in France allows television viewers to

buy software from the comfort of their own sofas. They watch the

infomercial, decide they want the product and hit the button. The

software is literally beamed down from space, courtesy of a satellite

and a set-top box. Insert your credit card into the set-top box and your

payment is instantly bounced back off the skies.

If it all seems a bit piecemeal, it’s because the highway is being built

by disparate private enterprises. As the US vice-president, Al Gore,

said in his celebrated speech on the I-way: ‘It’s a phase change - like

moving from ice to water. Ice is simple and water is simple, but in the

middle of the change it’s mush.’ The million dollar question, however,

is what kind of communications model will emerge from the mush? Will

more media just mean more ways of delivering advertising messages, or

will it fundamentally change the way we all communicate? Browning opts

for the latter: ‘The key point is that anyone can get in touch with

anyone else. Companies with products to sell can, and will have to, get

into direct touch with customers. That means that the jobs of people in

the media will change - people won’t have to go through gatekeepers like

us. Companies can put out a great deal of information about their

products directly and, instead of doing market research, they can ask

customers what they want, communicating directly and creating

communities of consumers.’

Which sounds as if ad agencies and marketers in general could find

themselves left out of the loop. Or, as Don Tapscott, the author of

Paradigm Shift and chair of the Alliance of Converging Technologies,

puts it: ‘As the mass media becomes the molecular media, companies

wanting to advertise can go directly to their markets - markets which

are becoming electronic. Advertisers will no longer need someone to

arrange the transaction. They [the advertisers] may even acquire their

own in-house talent to create the ads.’

Despite such grim projections, any forthcoming change in communications

does not necessarily mean that agencies will be left high and dry. They

may, however, have to undergo some evolutionary changes. ‘The key skill

for advertisers,’ Browning says, ‘will be responding to consumers, as

opposed to proposing to them, and managing and influencing consumer

discussion from among them.’

Michael Crossman, head of the interactive division at Bates Dorland,

also foresees a shift in the modus operandi. ‘In the short term,

marketers must take account of the new targeting - the advent of micro

communication. With direct one-to-one communication, the big issue is

managing relationships. In the retail world, if you don’t add value in

the process of working between the manufacturer and the consumer, you

have a problem.’

It’s a rare agency that doesn’t claim to add value, but with a snowstorm

of digital media, where the consumer has the ability to feed back

instantly and continuously, the mechanics of communicating changes.

‘You have to provide more breadth and depth. Everyone has a different

trigger that makes them buy; with conventional, above-the-line work you

reduce that to a 30-second message. With one-to-one dialogue you can let

the consumer guide you. You need to provide the information, but what

they then decide to click on, and move through, or how they navigate -

the click stream - is about their priorities,’ Crossman adds. ‘The

consumer may be looking for a different message and new media gives you

that instant access. In the future, you won’t see a TV car ad, then find

a phone to call up, then ask for a brochure, then call back for details

on colour schemes - it will all be done in one. What we have to do is

provide more information, more routes and yet provide the same impact

and strength you get with a single message - that’s where the skill is.’

Some see the role of the ad agency actually getting stronger as the new

media converge and multiply. ‘I don’t see the rules changing,’ Ed

Bayley, information technology director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says.

‘The media are fragmenting, but the job that agencies do is

communicating ideas to people and changing the medium doesn’t change

that. Media multiply, but there’s still the need for shared experience,

so if you put compelling stuff on the new medium it’ll work, but if you

think just making it digital does the trick, then you’re in for a


Ira Carlin, the executive vice-president and worldwide media director of

McCann-Erickson, also agrees that new ways of delivering media do not

necessarily change the media themselves. ‘First of all, the rise of new

media will not supersede or cause the disappearance of old media. What

is important is that the overall infrastructure around the world will

permit increased channels of new information and entertainment, of which

many will be multimedia channels - that is a combination of text, video

and audio. I think this is the kind of background distribution system

that will supplant the current distribution system for messages - so

we’ll see the end of over-the-air broadcasting in the next ten years.

There could be 15 to 20 per cent of the communications pot that migrates

to digital multimedia - so if you don’t adapt, then 15 to 20 per cent of

your revenue is going to have to go. At McCanns, we won’t allow that to

happen. The interactivity of that 20 per cent will have a huge effect -

it’s going to enable a more direct relationship for marketing. On the

other hand, Internet-based distribution brings up the issue of how

people find you. You need software ‘agents’ who watch what people watch

and tailor your messages to the audience.’

Much like Browning, Carlin sees the biggest shift as being towards

increased consumer choice, whatever the media, and the future of

advertising is about adapting from dictating to responding.

‘From a marketing communications point of view, it’s the consumer who

will control. As time passes, a greater proportion of the population

will cut their eye-teeth on communications choice and they will prefer

more of an active role. The idea of ad agencies as gatekeepers is

counter to that revolution and those agencies that decry that are

fighting a losing battle. I hope they take that position, because

they’ll be dead and gone in three years.’

Back in the UK, a lot of agencies are taking that position by default,

just by ignoring the growth in below-the-line screensavers and the Web

pages. As Zenith’s chairman, John Perriss, puts it: ‘It’s currently the

hottest topic you can talk about in the US. Everyone talks interactive,

but a lot of the work is bypassing traditional agencies.’ Perriss argues

that agencies should see interactive work as part of the marketing mix

that is their life blood. ‘It’s like the arguments for direct marketing

versus broadscale marketing. Direct marketing works best when linked to

branded broadscale advertising. You wouldn’t buy a Ford car from the Net

if you’ve never heard of Ford. The Net provides much more detail than

you are ever going to get in a general ad. Zenith and Saatchi and

Saatchi have done work for Toyota developing a Web site, and ads on the

Net, which brings the brochure alive as you turn to it, thereby bringing

the brochure into your home. Or you could download the infomercial,

making marketing more effective. The superhighway may change the ratio

between above the line to below the line, but it is a complement to the

work of agencies - an opportunity and not a threat. That said, as ever

with opportunities, if you don’t seize them, they become a threat.’

And whichever way the land lies in the future media, there are liable to

be some very familiar landmarks. ‘The fundamentals of brands will become

even more important when you’ve got data overload,’ Crossman says.

But while there is reassurance to be had from the idea that brands, and

brand creators, will become increasingly important as consumers try to

navigate future media, there is no room for complacency. Because British

agencies have been slow to pick up on new media, there are plenty of

examples of clients, including such luminaries as British Airways,

Levi’s and Hasbro, going straight to interactive developers for their

new-media work. True, this is probably less of an indicator of the shape

of things to come than a mark of agencies’ ignorance, arrogance or

apathy. That still doesn’t make it big, let alone clever.

The information superhighway is still some way off, but if we take the

Internet as an example, or prototype, then the early adaptors are likely

to be the demographic elite. Agencies that aren’t planning for the

digital media are denying themselves that access to those ABC1s. This,

in turn, means that the only presence some agencies will manage on the

information superhighway will be as I-way roadkill.


Information superhighway, or I-way - the offspring of the converging

communications, computing and entertainment industries


The global network of computers, and computer networks that currently

carries text, graphics and even some video into homes or offices via

twisted copper wires originally designed for a single voice.


The amount of information a delivery medium can handle at once. If the

I-way is to handle wide loads such as films, two-way video conferencing

and interactive shopping, it needs an infrastructure with more capacity

than the phone network.


MOdulator/DEModulator - the interface between a computer and a phone

line that translates computer signals into phone signals and vice versa.


Integrated Services Digital Network - the original zippy phone line,

designed from the start for computer data as well as voices, with a

capacity far greater than a normal phone line.


Digital Subscriber Line, actually a bit of a misnomer since DSL isn’t

really a line so much as a modem, a connection between your phone or

computer and the high bandwidth ISDN lines.


Delivery technologies: the SL stands for Subscriber Line in each case;

AD is Asymmetric Digital, a way of sending movies, TV or data down

unshielded twisted pair lines (see UTP); HD is High Data rate; VD is

Very High Data rate.


Unshielded Twisted Pair - proof positive that the world is run by people

who prefer acronyms to English, UTP is known to mortals as phone cable.


Asynchronous Transfer Mode is a way of packaging up data to send it down

a line. It’s fast, flexible, and isn’t tied to any specific delivery



Switched Multimegabit Data Service - similar to ATM, SMDS is a high

bandwidth solution to putting data into fixed-size packets, or cells,

and sending them down existing phone networks.