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Let's not forget that people sit down and watch TV to see programs that entertain or inform them, no the balance their checkbooks or order a pizza. HIGHWAY OR YELLOW BRICK ROAD? FOR AGENCIES AND ADVERTISERS, THE PATH TO INTERACTIVE HAS MANY DETOURS

By Published on .

Cable operators, telephone companies and multimedia designers have recently begun to court agencies and advertisers with detailed descriptions of the opportunities that will soon be available on the digital superhighway.

But to an advertising professional, the superhighway often feels more like the yellow brick road. We're all "off to see the wizard," sharing a common destination, but little else, with each of us hoping for something different when we arrive.

Given this background-and the conviction that advertising will play a critical role in the digital era-the inevitable change will affect our business significantly. And the most important question is what does the consumer want?

The consumer of tomorrow will be empowered with the ability and opportunity to do more things, faster, whenever he or she wants to-whether it is banking, shopping, planning a trip, ordering airline tickets, watching a favorite movie or obtaining more information about a product or a service.

But does the consumer really want this new-found power?

Americans are looking for substance, not surface. They are turning to goods and services they can count on: the known, the tried and true, the things that offer real value. That shift has widespread implications for marketers, who are looking to ensure receptivity of products and advertising messages.

When we think about the promises of the information superhighway, we ask:

Will the consumer want those bells and whistles?

What will the consumer be willing (and able) to pay?

Will the consumer be concerned about invasion of his privacy?

These questions lead to yet another:

How will the consumer receive advertising?

The easy answer is "more selectively." But beyond that, the consumer will have the ability to ask questions rather than simply receive the message passively, tuning out what is not relevant.

And while we're on the subject, what will advertising look like?

Well, commercials will probably run the gamut from 5-second spots to program-length advertising, or infomercials, depending on what is being sold and where they will air. And in some instances, advertising will need interactive elements.

The next logical question is where and how will advertising be placed?

With potentially hundreds of new channels, many filling special-interest niches (and most more targeted and localized than today), and with the promise of switching technologies that can send different messages to individual consumers, the possibilities are endless.

This plethora of program and advertising choices will certainly result in an overhaul of our current system of audience measurement.

At the very least, we will need to shift from our current system, which uses program audiences, to one that measures the audience of the commercial. Or perhaps for interactive ads, transactional ratings are more critical: not simply how many viewers saw the commercial, but how many responded, and how deeply into the commercial did they delve.

Here's a "wish list" to facilitate the transition to new technology and allow both sellers and buyers to maximize our learning.

Wish #1: Speak our language.

We are not suggesting that you talk to us about spots, sell us gross rating points and guarantee us on costs per thousand. But don't become frustrated if we ask you for some proof of performance or other benchmark of value to justify your cost. Our clients generally do not have R&D budgets to funds tests like yours, and we cannot recommend that they commit media dollars without being able to evaluate what they get in return.

Wish #2: Talk to your customers.

Consumers will talk more openly about sex or money than they will about TV. Often they are reluctant to admit they watch TV at all-other than PBS and the news.

Second, consumers don't always do what they say they do. Look at the Nielsen ratings for PBS and the evening news if you doubt this.

So, rather than operate entirely under the assumption that "If you build it, they will come," consider also Thomas Edison's observation: "Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent."

Wish #3: Remember it's TV!

TV in the U.S. has a half-century of knowing what works and what doesn't. We should all learn from the experience.

Let's not forget that people sit down and watch TV to see programs that entertain or inform them, not to balance their checkbooks or order a pizza.

Wish #4: Don't be greedy.

Generally speaking, we do not believe in paying for media tests. The seller is either evaluating his equipment, gauging consumer reaction or determining the economic or technological feasibility of future expansion. When we do pay for tests, it is because we are getting some quantifiable value in return-and because we will receive more favorable treatment when the rollout proceeds.

Wish #5: Research, research, research!

If the previous four wishes are important, Wish #5 is critical. After all, if an advertiser is paying to participate in an interac tive test, what that advertiser is really paying for is the learning that would tell him how or even whether to pro ceed.

Here are some of our research needs:

How are subscribers in these sys tems using TV? How does that com pare to subscribers in more typical cable systems?

How much time is spent viewing movies on demand? Is that time that would have come from ad-supported broadcast or cable or a pay service like HBO?

Do subscribers in 500-channel systems see less advertising than viewers in 50-channel systems?

Would subscribers accept advertising on a pay-per-view movie if it meant paying less for that movie?

If my automotive client participated in an interactive shopping mall, how many people (by demographic) requested more information, the name of a dealer or a test drive? How many of those leads resulted in a sale?

Without the answers to these questions, it would be impossible for advertisers to allocate dollars and resources between new and traditional opportunities, or for the vendors themselves to implement further rollout.

Consistent, credible research will help all of us make the right decisions, while flawed, limited or non-existent data can only lead to bad decisions and misspent dollars.

The changes consumers will be exposed to in the 1990s are nothing compared to those they will face in the next century. But change they will, and so will agencies. We will help our clients find new ways to communicate with the consumer to help the consumer make buying decisions.

Betsy Frank is senior VP-director of TV information and new media at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York.

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