EBay-style auction is the future for TV buying-or is it?

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The plan under way by a group of major marketers, not the least of which is the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, to create an online auction for buying and selling TV time is an idea dividing the industry. The group, which collectively controls more than $2 billion in media budgets, also includes Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Lexus, Philips and Masterfoods. Those who oppose it mainly express concerns about turning a process that has moved away from commoditization back toward the mentality that TV spots are something that should be bought in bulk. Many made the point that TV inventory is more than ever not a commodity, and that it's not about the cheapest rates but about smartly integrated and placed messages.

"The destablizing effect of an auction-based system will have a negative ripple-like impact to producers and networks. Advertising space/time is not a commodity; it is a plan-able vehicle for reaching specific audiences," said Jack Cowie, principal, Highland Marketing Group.

But others see merit in the plan, especially those who are already well-versed in Web auctions. Steve Baldwin of Did-It Search Marketing thinks it's an "excellent idea! Let's make agencies accountable and let an auction squeeze out the waste! Bravo for Wal-Mart-this plan will bring more value to advertisers and shake out the nonperforming agencies in a wonderfully Darwinian fashion."

Then there are those ad veterans who have heard this idea before and aren't entirely convinced it will work this time around either. The idea of a stock exchange for TV spots was floated before by both Enron and Heinz, and just last year before the annual broadcast TV upfronts, Julie Roehm, now Wal-Mart VP-marketing communications, proposed a similar system when she was with DaimlerChrysler.

Tom Walsh of Winged Foot Consulting summed it up this way: "It's kind of like what Will Rogers said about communism: "Communism is a lot like prohibition, it's a great idea, but it will never work."
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