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NEW-MEDIA SHAMS AND SHAMES AA PROJECTS REVEAL THAT UNDERNEATH ALL THE TALK, THERE'S A LOT OF DEAD AIR

By Published on .

In his new book, "Being Digital"-a tome you don't have to be Nicholas Negroponte to understand-the founding director of M.I.T.'s Media Lab justifies the use of atoms (ink and paper) to communicate his thoughts about bits (digital information).

"So why an old-fashioned book, Negroponte, especially one without a single illustration?" the author imagines readers asking. "Why is [publisher] Knopf shipping `Being Digital' as atoms instead of bits, when these pages ... can be so easily rendered into digital form?"

He offers three reasons, the weightiest being, "There are just not enough digital media in the hands of executives, politicians, parents and all those who most need to understand this radically new culture."

Amen to that.

Having committed to in-depth and ongoing coverage of emerging media technologies more than two years ago, Advertising Age has been an eyewitness to the media and marketing industries' attempts to clarify their evolving role in a digital world. The strides made have been painful and sometimes reluctant but have been strides forward nonetheless.

The results of two editorial projects undertaken for this special issue of Interactive Media & Marketing, however, confirm that while traditional marketing communications companies are yakking about the revolutionary changes ripping through their world, they are not yet acting on them in a meaningful way.

The first venture involved sending a series of questions by e-mail to leading thinkers at consumer products companies, technology giants and media conglomerates, asking them about the impact of new media and trends for the coming year.

Not surprisingly, e-mail addresses for chip-heads like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Andy Grove were easy to come by. What was surprising was the number of so-called media visionaries who are not yet wired.

John Malone of TCI has enough respect for online communications to plunk down $125 million for 20% of Bill Gates' planned Microsoft Network. But the King of Cable doesn't have his own mailbox in cyberspace. And if Jerry Levin of Time Warner-a company whose many copyrights are being reproduced on every platform from two-way TV to the Internet-has an e-mail address, his underlings don't know anything about it. Nintendo Chairman Howard Lincoln, a speaker at many interactive conferences, isn't set up yet, either.

Over at Walt Disney Co., an assistant to Michael Eisner asked whether the questions could be faxed to his office, noting, "We're not set up for [e-mail] yet." She wasn't the only one requesting we dial up an old-fashioned fax machine.

There's no excuse for this. While interactive TV will undoubtedly have its place in the future, communications executives have to be online today to understand the impact interactivity is having on information delivery, customer relations and transactions.

For the second editorial project, Advertising Age placed phone calls to the top 50 leading national advertisers to find out the name, title, phone number and e-mail address of the executive in charge of marketing each company's brands via new-media platforms.

Again, the results were disturbing. Of the top 50 U.S. advertisers, only five have dedicated interactive executives or units (including Disney in this case). At several other companies, traditional high-level marketing and media executives apparently are exploring the interactive realm in their spare time.

Most startling, though, were the major multinational marketers that clearly have given no thought at all to emerging media. They spoke of interactivity as an alien topic, with more than one saying they had been approached about "things like that" but weren't doing anything yet.

Some questioned our reasons for asking and refused to talk; others steered us toward their ad agencies.

And while agencies seem to have moved ahead of their clients on the new-media curve, some are still trailing behind. Jonathan Bulkeley of America Online won't name names, but claims that some agency executives in charge of sizable new-media budgets don't even have modems in their offices and have never been online.

While we hadn't expected to find the traditional marketing industry packed with e-mailable CEOs and clearly labeled interactive departments, our expectations weren't unrealistic. We had expected the highest levels of the industry to be further along the new-media path than they are by this point. Internet access and commercial online service subscriptions are not hard to come by, after all.

There's no way to side-step the issues any longer. Whether or not marketing communications will be dramatically transformed by the digital revolution is no longer a point in dispute. The questions now are how they will be impacted and how marketers will change the way they do business.

To quote Mr. Negroponte again, "As one industry after another looks at itself in the mirror and asks about its future in a digital world, that future is driven almost 100% by the ability of that company's products or services to be rendered in digital form."

This industry has been staring at itself in the mirror for the better part of a year. Now it's time to turn around and face the future.

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