The Collaborative Alliance Group, created by Universal McCann Futures, the emerging media arm of Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson WorldGroup, also includes media companies Cox Communications, AOL Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting and Discovery Digital Networks, along with interactive technology providers Invidi, ShadowTV, TiVo, Vindigo and Wink Communications.
"It's about understanding new opportunities and experimenting with them," said Robin Kent, chairman-CEO, Universal McCann Worldwide, New York.
Also participating are representatives from key marketing disciplines within McCann- MRM Partners Worldwide, the agency's direct marketing arm, Universal McCann's media-planning department and brand-consulting unit FutureBrand and the research department. Even the legal department will contribute to an ongoing debate over privacy and iTV applications. The goal of the Collaborative Alliance Group is to improve participants' understanding of iTV technologies, addressable advertising, enhanced TV, video-on-demand, wireless location-based services and other forms of interactive advertising.
Marketers and agencies have wrestled with how to incorporate emerging media into marketing objectives since the advent of the Internet and more recently, TiVo, the ad-skipping personal TV service. Digital cable and high-definition TV services are also changing the context, function and application of TV advertising.
"No one really has enough knowledge to know how to move forward in the iTV/new-media space. So only by collaborating with different disciplines internally, and in bringing that advertising and consumer knowledge to the technology companies, can we move the needle," said Mitch Oscar, senior VP-director of media futures, Universal McCann Futures, who leads the effort.
"We're really looking at iTV as an evolutionary medium," said Larry Goodman, president-CNN sales and marketing.
Mr. Oscar, who's vetted new technologies at the agency for five years, began recruiting tech and media partners to the group last year; agency colleagues participate on a voluntary basis. To date, 10 Universal McCann clients have agreed to participate in the effort and several trials under the aegis of the Collaborative Alliance are running. "As a category brand leader, we place tremendous value in exploring new media opportunities," said Barry Schrag, director of advertising and marketing, Avis.
Universal McCann counts United Parcel Service, L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson and Sony Corp. among its clients. The agency declined to confirm whether these marketers will participate in the Alliance.
"What Universal McCann [Futures] offers us is a laboratory and a stable of clients that are willing to participate, and in the end we figure out how to make a business of [iTV] in the most efficient way possible," said Ken Ripley, VP-advertising sales, Discovery Digital Networks. The Discovery Communications unit last month began a test with advertisers, some of which are Universal McCann clients, supporting HD-Theater, Discovery's high-definition TV channel. The channel is offered on EchoStar's satellite TV service.
Debby Mullin, Cox'sVP-new media ad development, believes the group is unique because it's based on an open dialogue about what does and doesn't work. "One of the challenges with respect to [iTV] advertising is that the medium doesn't fit cleanly into any particular bucket that's been established, it doesn't fit a television buying model ... it's a direct marketing model," Ms. Mullin said, adding, "How do you define critical mass outside the normal television realm?"
Cox, the first cable operator to join the group, begins a test for a free video-on-demand service that's designed specifically for advertising. Turner, which recently launched a VOD service in 10 markets via Time Warner Digital Cable, will conduct a VOD ad trial with three Universal McCann clients, one of which is Epic Records, a unit of Sony Music Entertainment. The advertisers will support VOD and enhanced broadcasts of Turner's CNN news content, "Larry King Live," "Crossfire," "CNN Uncut" and reportage from correspondent Jeannie Moos.