At the forefront is Grey Advertising's Fattal & Collins in Marina del Rey, Calif. On the heels of introducing its much-written-about Internet soap opera "The Spot" last month, Fattal plans to launch in January a branded, ad-supported World Wide Web site called the American Cybercast Network.
Fattal is now developing four other programs to join "The Spot" on ACN and will begin presenting to Grey clients like Procter & Gamble Co. and other agencies by the end of September.
In Culver City, marketing agency Digital Planet, a creator of web sites for Hollywood studios, by yearend intends to launch two ad-supported programs on a branded web site called the Digital Planet Network.
Ad agency holding company WPP Group is making a somewhat more cautious move. WPP last week said it's among a group of investors, including Burda NewMedia and Pacific Telesis, buying a 15% stake in HotWired, one of the most frequently visited web sites.
"It's one of the few sites that integrates content with advertising," said Eric Salama, director of strategy at London-based WPP. "Most online ventures will not exist without advertising, and we understand what advertisers need to do in order to grow brands with interactive media."
If all this sounds vaguely like the early days of TV, when pioneering ad agencies started creating game shows and soap operas for their clients, then you're on the same wavelength as some of the cyber-admen.
Fattal President Russell Collins sees ACN becoming nothing less than "an institution on the interactive horizon. We want to be the ABC of the Internet."
These emerging ambitions are causing ad agencies to redefine themselves and their future roles. The likes of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, are plotting moves, prodded by clients and tempted by the accessibility of the Internet.
"We're creating the paradigm for an Internet network and advertising, but we want to challenge the agency community to do better than us," Mr. Collins said, adding, "We want a creative revolution on the 'net, and we want it to come from the agency community."
Many agency executives, however, are still inclined to say, "Start the revolution without me."
"If a network like F&C's is successful and if we believe it could deliver results for our clients, we'll take a look at it," said Frank D'Angelo, account director for the international interactive group at Messner Vetere, adding that his agency is investigating options similar to Fattal's activities. "But increasingly, the novelty is wearing off and our industry is starting to take a harder look at what new media can deliver."
Although Mr. Salama believes the Internet will one day evolve into a broadcast-type medium, right now he sees it more as a tool for public relations. WPP believes the key to success in the future is for agencies to envision a wider range of business developing from the interactive medium.
"We chose to get involved with HotWired at an early stage because it's already an extremely well-placed medium," he said. "When the technology gets here in about two or three years, we'll be ready to run with all sorts of advertising and content creations."
A few agency executives questioned whether being on the content-producing side is the proper role for agencies. Others feared that such activities would conflict with an agency's traditional business, and wondered whether Fattal and Digital Planet will eventually lose their Hollywood studio clients because they compete in the programming side of the business.
But most agency executives joined with Fattal, Digital Planet and executives at Hollywood studios to say issues pertaining to competition and conflicts are still too far away. In fact, Fattal will soon announce major deals with two studios to help repurpose their properties for Internet entertainment.
"In the future, it may be a conflict," Mr. Collins said. "But the reality right now and for a while is that everyone has to not only stake some turf but learn what it can do. And frankly, there's too much turf and too much to learn to even worry about conflicts and competition."
Competition ranging from Disney Interactive to countless "garage-band" cybernets is coming, but it's hard to say how soon. So far, most have opted for marketing endeavors like Fox World, which serves to promote the broadcasting business. "As of now, it's a promotional tool designed to drive people to the broadcast network," said John P. Roberts, Fox's director of interactive entertainment. "But sometime down the line, we will look at other programming.'
Kim Cleland contributed to this story.