Waiting in the lavishly appointed foyer of one of our leading advertising agencies the other day, I found myself standing in front of a marble-effect Formica lectern. The walls were studded with video monitors showing rock videos and the agency’s own ads. In the middle of the lectern’s blank, upturned face was a green, illuminated button. Definitely an Alice in Wonderland experienceno label, no instructions. Naturally, I pressed the button. Nothing happened. Feeling a bit stupid, I asked the receptionist what it was for. “Oh, that
doesn’t do anything”, she told me.
Then I visited the Science Museum’s exhibition, called, naturally, Information Superhighway. And – blow me down – there are green buttons, lots of them. This time, we’re in the presence of interactive media as conceived by a State-funded educational institution. The signs aren’t good. The phenomenon under the spotlight is leaps and bounds ahead of its description, here under the tacky glare of the Science Museum’s spotlights. To be fair to the curators, no media form has ever grown as fast as this one. Building an analogue for the quicksilver Internet in a museum is clearly a mug’s game. Between the exhibition’s conception and its launch the medium changed almost beyond recognition. Green buttons are history.
Recently, in a Silicon Valley motel room, I heard the DJ on the local station plug the net as part of World Spring, the convention I was in town for. At the show 26 000 people came in off the street to learn about this Internet thing, twice the projected number. In the hall, between bewildered geeks, sat the oddest mixture of interlopers from the real world. “Now you can bet on the Net!” shouted one banner. Men who’d have looked more comfortable poolside in Reno with fat cigars and bad rugs had come to the show to promote their online, offshore gambling denand they were doing very well. Newspapers, TV stations, mail-order companies, book shops and pizza houses were all lining up to claim their share in what they believe is a viable mass market.
Outside again, a recent count of URLs (an URL is a Uniform Resource Locatora web site’s address) in print advertisements yielded over 100, and among the ever predictable computer companies were shoe shops, massage parlours and auto dealers.
In case you think this is a purely American phenomenon, in Britain Internet access per head of population is now greater than in the US – only Singapore is better connected. There are more Internet nodes in Britain than anywhere outside the US. Predictably, ad agencies have clued in, for where the consumers go, the advertisers will surely follow.
My research suggests that all of the major UK agencies now have new media managers or someone who takes care of interactive media. Many are working on trial projects. Some now have live ads.
The Telegraph and Future Publishing now publish rate cards for advertising in their Internet products. We can expect similar moves from EMAP and Time Out before too long. In the US, Hotwired, Wired magazine’s Internet product, is on target to earn $2m from ad sales in its first year.
The Internet has big implications for ad agencies, but for the media-only houses it has a special charm. The huge growth in direct marketing, sponsorship, regional media campaigns and now the resurgence of “paid-for programming” all point to the Internet as a delivery medium for better-targeted, cost-effective advertising. Interactive media, and the net in particular, may allow media houses to cut creatives out of the game.
Independent Internet creative and production houses with designers, editors and production people on board are appearing everywhere. Their natural alliance is not with cumbersome creative or full-service advertising agencies but with responsive, independent media buyers. The future is with independent creative service houses – web designers in this case – and the new breed of media buyers and planners. But big agencies won’t just fade away – and the net’s genuinely democratic environment favours small companies and independents anyway. Designers will be able to thrive here and, for the first time, have an opportunity to shape an industry from scratch and catch the majors napping.
Steve Bowbrick (Steve@ webmedia.com) is dir-ector at Web production house Web Media.