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FACING OFF 1 TO 1 HOW FAST CAN A TEAM OF INTERACTIVISTS WHIP UP AN 'I-AD'? HOW ABOUT IN LESS THAN A DAY

By Published on .

THERE IS NO BETTER WAY TO FIND OUT JUST WHAT AN interactive ad is, how it is made and even what it should cost to make, than by organizing a creative shootout. That was the idea behind the first interactive shootout at the CreaTech conference on interactive advertising, held in San Francisco in December.

Not only is interactive a strange new world for advertising, but it also threatens to undermine the economics of the business as we know it today: the children of the new media want quality graphics on their computer screens -or wherever else interactive ads will show up-but they're not a mass audience so much as an aggregation of many specialty audiences.

Both shootout teams were from California; the two-man team from San Francisco-based Ideo (pronounced EYE-dio) went up against Digital Facades' four-man team from Los Angeles. Both represented a species of hybrid organization that is sprouting up around the country-a blend of programmers, multimedia designers and artists who have been involved with ad agencies or some form of marketing communications. Some members of the teams are even refugees from hot shops, like Digital Facades' programmer Will Kessler, formerly with Chiat/Day.

A week before the event each team was told that the topic would involve the Ford Mustang. Each was sent a video with documentary footage of the Mustang from Estate Films in L.A., which they could digitize in advance, and a Kodak Photo CD with 17 scanned images that they could "drop" into their i-ads (interactive ads).

On the day of the conference the audience was asked to vote on the delivery medium-floppy disc, CD-ROM, interactive kiosk or interactive TV. They chose interactive TV. Then they were asked to vote on the demographics. They chose women-of all ages.

That left the teams just 10 hours to present the judges with an ad that would be recognizably interactive: a persuasive computer-based application with branching information that included video clips.

The teams set up across from each other on the exhibition floor.

Digital Facades huddled around an Apple Quadra 700 and a PowerMac 6100 loaded with a new Radius VideoVision Telecast board to digitize the video clips from a VCR. Ideo's team lined up behind two Quadra 700s. Both teams used Macromedia Director, the multimedia industry's standard development tool, as their main ad-building program.

That was where the similarity ended; from then on the teams took entirely different directions. Digital Facades decided they needed to do some quick research on what suddenly loomed as an unfamiliar topic: using multimedia to sell what was once a muscle car to women. "We got some women's magazines and looked at car ads," says Digital Facades' team leader, John Lin. "We took the audience seriously-no games, no talk about power. We stressed activities related to car styling and lifestyle."

Ideo's team began at the outset with the idea of introducing a game. "Our approach," says team leader Peter Spreenberg, "is that in a medium where the users have ultimate control they need a reason to sit through advertising. We wanted to make it entertaining, and games are the most compelling thing around."

Back at the Digital Facades camp, their approach meant that the team spent two and a half hours just discussing the idea. "We made storyboards on paper," says Lin, "we had no choice-it is still faster to sketch on paper." Once the team was in agreement, Lin, as the leader, delivered a design structure for the program describing where the scanned images and digitized video would go, and provided templates of the various branching screens. Graphics designer Oliver Chan did the actual art work and titling, while Kessler put in all the computer actions like the actual branching, calling up video and the like with Macromedia's underlying programming language, called Lingo. For the most part, this procedure relies on laying out a miniature version of each screen on a grid and writing in functions that tell the computer how to link between screens.

Both teams read the Photo CD scans into their programs simply by loading the disc into the CD-ROM drives of the multimedia Macs. Facades brought in music from a library of royalty-free stock music on CDs. Video segments were digitized by connecting a VCR to the computer installed with a Radius Telecast board.

The Ideo team had digitized video segments in advance and now turned to Adobe Premier to sequence the video segments, Sound Edit to bring in and manage the soundtrack and Macromedia Director to put the entire package together. Their approach to the soundtrack was to enter a quiet area of the conference where they could create "mouth sounds," which they used for the sound effects necessary for the driving game they were planning. However, as they proceeded, they began to get the feeling that their design vehicle wasn't really getting them to their target market-but they were so far into it there was no turning back. It was a tough situation because, like many developers, they believe games are still the royal road to the consumer.

As Wired put it," says Spreenberg, "people using computerized stuff want fun for free-subsidized entertainment." But by then, Ideo was confronting the fact that the subsidized entertainment concept applies to the typical overwhelmingly male multimedia audience. The real issue was, "What are games for girls?" says Spreenberg. "They don't like shoot 'em up games." But was that a question they could solve in an afternoon?

At 7 p.m., just 10 hours after getting their marching orders, the teams were ready to make their presentations to the voting audience-literally tearing their portable hard drives away from their computers and running for the stage. Digital Facades kicked off with a stylish presentation of a screen extolling the Mustang, with three ways of looking into the soul of the Mustang-a blend of historical and contemporary footage, always stressing safety and convenience in a nod to the target. The music was evocative and the audience cheered for a well-mounted presentation done by this team in the amazing time of under 10 hours.

Spreenberg and his partner fared a little less well. They mounted a presentation of a noisy but inventive driving game-more or less the typical obstacle course, with "billboards" on the side of the road that featured Mustang clips and testimonials. While the game still had bugs, it worked well enough to get the attention of the audience, which was visibly impressed at what had been achieved in such a short time.

Still, it didn't seem particularly targeted to women, and although the audience applauded heartily, Digital Facades had the edge and they won the prize-a Marcom Award, a copy of Macromedia Director and, indirectly, a deal with Ketchum Interactive in Los Angeles. But had they produced a real interactive ad? Well, both teams surely produced a working prototype of an i-ad-not bad for a day's

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