Universal McCann Futures will be headed by Mitch Oscar, 46, senior VP-director of media futures.
The department will experiment with innovations in interactive TV, HDTV, personal TV recorders such as TiVo and Replay, satellite TV and digital radio, according to Universal's chairman, Ira Carlin.
It will not focus on the Internet, leaving that to other McCann units.
UM Futures "will supply intelligence, information and perspective and encouragement of experimentation with all forms of interactive communication," Mr. Carlin said. "We'll keep very careful track of building relationships with these new-technology suppliers and try to convince ourselves and some of our key clients to participate."
In June, the department plans to hold a technology fair for the agency and for an unidentified major client. Executives outside the agency said it's Johnson & Johnson, but Mr. Carlin would not confirm that.
"The purpose of it is to let [the client] see from a consumer perspective how to devise advertising schemes exploiting the new technology," Mr. Oscar said. "They have heard of TiVo and Replay, but they don't own them. So we'll have them there."
Mr. Carlin said UM Futures is "deliberately trying to [avoid] an Internet focus. We have Zentropy Partners in the McCann-Erickson WorldGroup, which focuses on that. I really want to [bear down on] interactive advertising, convergence, digital radio, even electronic print."
Of all the hot technologies, perhaps none is more controversial than personal TV recorders, which allow viewers to control their TVs by pausing live programming and recording shows to hard drives.
THE MURDERER OF :30S
With their ability to "zap out" commercials, systems such as TiVo and Replay have been accused of attempting to sabotage the ad industry. During a panel discussion at the recent Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau conference in New York, Stacy Jolna, VP-programming and network relations at TiVo, shared the stage with 10 other media industry executives and was roundly criticized.
"You're the unindicted conspirator here," said Harvard University law professor Arthur Miller, who led the panel. "You're the mass murderer of 30-second commercials."
Mr. Jolna argued that his product can also be used to identify consumers for advertisers.
"What if you could marry the right audience member with the right product for the very first time?" he said.
Also introduced to the market last week was a Web-based personal TV system called Jovio. The manufacturer claims its product can "identify individual viewers' tastes, interests and viewing habits, enabling Jovio to deliver programs and targeted ad messages based on viewer preferences."
While UM Futures plans to seriously explore the new technologies, Messrs. Carlin and Oscar are wary of personal TV recorders. Marketers of such systems "will talk about . . . fast-forwarding through commercials," Mr. Oscar said. "At the same time, they're approaching advertisers to work with them. It's crazy."
Mr. Oscar worked in McCann's media department from 1983 to 1985, then left to assume other posts. He rejoined the agency in October 1998 to start the new media unit.