In my business-the business of advertising-technology already has set our world spinning. Advances in digital technology move faster than a speeding microchip. In fact, it's the most rapidly changing, most quickly adopted technology in the history of mankind. By the time I finish this piece and e-mail it to Advertising Age, the future may have taken another dramatic turn.
This we know for certain: Digital technology has opened the floodgate to electronic commerce. And electronic commerce has changed buying behavior faster than anyone believed it could. Starting with the business-to-business sector-with its installed computer base-and moving swiftly through millions of homes in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere in the world, e-commerce has taken hold.
Online sales are exploding. The Web and electronic commerce already have begun to spawn whole new global businesses-e.g. Amazon.com, E*Trade, eBay.
What we see is nothing less than the dawning of a global "digiconomy"-a new form of global distribution and sales that bypasses bricks and mortar and the traditional infrastructure usually associated with the marketing of goods and services. For whole hosts of industries, e-commerce is a faster, cheaper and far more effective way of selling goods and services anywhere in the world.
I predict the next pivotal event-and in my humble opinion it will occur within the next two years-is the transformation of the passive TV into an interactive transactional tool. Consumers won't need computers to surf the Web in pursuit of buying products and services. They'll be able to connect with the Web right on their TV set.
What makes this transformation possible is broadband technology.
Rupert Murdoch already has started rolling out this technology to his BSkyB satellite subscribers across Europe and, with his recent deal with Echo Star, the U.S. won't be far behind. John Malone and Tele-Communications Inc. are hot on his trail with the same capability in cable.
The magic of broadband technology is that, unlike narrowband, constrained by phone wires and modems, it brings high resolution, full motion, interactive video to the screen. Images on the Web, for the first time, will be TV quality.
The disadvantages of narrowband electronic commerce as we now know it-blurry images, disconnected or jumpy movements, flat graphics and slow response time-will be a thing of the past.
Once again the emphasis will be on content; and creativity will never be more important.
Here's how it will work. The consumer sits at home enjoying a TV program and sees a commercial. If the advertising is compelling and the viewer is interested in the product, he or she can simply click the remote. The commercial will be seamlessly hot-linked to the advertiser's Web site, where the consumer will experience the brand real time and, if they want, be able to buy the product or service right then-at the moment of brand truth-right off the TV set.
MOST POTENT MARKETING WEAPON
With the dawning of transactional TV, brand values will draw as much from the real-time Web interaction as from the traditional TV commercial. Transactional TV will be the most potent global marketing weapon marketers have ever seen. The business model for our clients and for us will be significantly and permanently altered.
In addition, it opens a new era of accountability. For, as John Wanamaker said at the turn of the last century, "I know half the money I spend in advertising is wasted. The only problem is that I don't know which half."
At the turn of the new century, in the new digiconomy, we'll know which half is wasted-and so will our clients-because every visit to a Web site and every transaction is a data point that can be tracked. That's accountability.
ROLE OF ADVERTISING AGENCIES
Along with the accountability comes a new universe of possibilities. And the role of advertising agencies-those that take a leadership role in managing real-time data and in harnessing the creative potential of transactional TV-will be more important than ever.
For those of us in the advertising business-and, actually, for those of us in all businesses-this will be the most exciting time any of us has experienced. So tighten your virtual seat belts. We are on warp speed once again.
And don't worry-we'll survive Jan. 1, 2000, too!
Mr. Mason is CEO of True North Communications, Chicago, parent company of Foote,