Untapped ad space
No, it wasn't just another example of greedy ad execs trying to put ads in every last uncovered space. They were trying to create a sustainable plan for advertising in an area that will play an increasingly important role in the future of media consumption: the electronic TV programming guide. As the number of video choices increases, especially once TVs are more commonly linked to the web, navigating those choices becomes more critical. And guides remain untapped advertising real estate.
"Today is meant to be a food fight," said Mitch Oscar, exec VP at Carat Digital, as people munched on turkey sandwiches and chocolate cookies. "I hope we come up with something more than banners and pre-roll."
The meeting was born out of Carat Exchange, a forum Mr. Oscar convenes about three times a year, inviting rival agencies, TV networks and technology companies to share their products and unveil results from tests. Executives from multiple agencies often share experiences -- which, in a world where proprietary information is a key selling point, is a feat in itself. Banking giant Chase is the guinea pig for most of Carat Exchange's VOD and iTV experiments, but Mr. Oscar is trying to bring more marketers in. His mantra: "How are we going to learn about all these emerging technologies if we don't share our experiences?"
This meeting focused on Hillcrest Labs, a company hoping to solve the video navigation problem by allowing users to move a little curser around the TV screen using a motion-sensitive Nintendo Wii-like remote and a graphical guide to zoom in and out of titles rather than scroll up and down.
"Consumers will still want the best stuff on the best screen in the house," said Hillcrest's Andy Addis. "Right now the way to navigate that content is a grid ... but the up-down, left-right collapses under its own weight."
The ad opportunities are plentiful -- but finding the ones consumers will swallow remains the challenge. Could advertisers target contextually based on what people are watching? (Yes, promised Mr. Addis.) Could there be branded microsites? What about pop-up overlays so users can buy or get more information on every product in a show? Or sponsor-recommended playlists, such as Nike's college-basketball games of the week? Links to sponsored, on-demand content such as show outtakes or behind-the-scenes video? Or maybe simple ads that pop up when a user rolls the curser over a program's description?
Fear of clutter
"I feel like what we're trying to do is clutter it up with a lot of ads," warned Ronnie Beason, exec VP-director of planning for Carat USA. Mr. Oscar eschewed the idea of product showcases, arguing that not many people used TiVo's version because it didn't offer consumers enough value.
There are no right answers -- yet. Hillcrest will mock up the top 10 or so concepts from the meeting with ads from real-life Carat clients, and the agency will convene focus groups to gauge consumer reaction.
"Everyone picked up something," Mr. Oscar said after the meeting. "It was a free meal, they networked, it didn't cost anything but a little time, and if they picked up a new term or concept, it moved the whole industry forward."