A tiny fish in a massive sea has caught the wave of TV's future

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If you thought 1,000 TV channels promised to change marketing, get ready for the real revolution: 1 trillion TV commercials, each one as customized as a bespoke suit.

That tantalizing vision was conjured during the earliest days of the Internet, when rudimentary serving technology allowed banner ads to be assembled on the fly, tailored to individual users' interests, as captured by cookies cached on their hard drives. Such targeting has grown enormously sophisticated, and is a primary reason Net ad spending should grow from $8 billion today to $15 billion by 2008 and leapfrog magazine ad spending, according to Jupiter Research. But customized TV was presumed a distant dream, subject to advances yet to come in server and storage technology.

Guess what? They came. I saw. It will conquer.

Visible World is a marketing-services company headquartered in a dreary Manhattan stretch near the banks of the Hudson. Led by a couple of renegades out of BBDO and a tech whiz who helped create Prodigy, one of the first online services, it is showing the way toward customized TV spots, using the video version of Internet Protocol, addressable cable.

To a client base that already includes Ford Motor Co., 1-800-Flowers and others, Visible World is offering a technology that allows marketers to automatically assemble TV spots from components stored on a remote server and customize them to a ZIP code, even a few hundred households linked by the cable operator's head end.

"Imagine you're Pizza Hut, and a store in one area knows that meat toppings sell best, and another wants to offer a deal on cheese," says the company's executive chairman, Bill Katz, the former president-CEO of BBDO New York. "This technology allows them to choose."

It certainly does. Targeted TV can take a baseline advertisement-an airline's February Florida promotion, for example-and surround it with psychodemographic opportunities: an older voice-over, a Herman's Hermits soundtrack, a cut of two stylish gray-hairs for a senior citizens' audience; a 20-something voice, a bit of hip-hop and a shot of Jell-O shots for the spring-break crowd. Imagine 200 such market segments -each one with a different travel agent location. Now imagine that you don't have to embed these choices in a videotape, or restrict each segmented commercial to a pre-defined advertising flight. Instead, you can automate the changes, based on weather, inventory or myriad other variables-and track the traffic that responds.

"This is almost a new medium," says Ted Sann, who as creative chief of BBDO defined advertising's last great "massified" period but who now, significantly, is working with Visible World.

Let me not be naive. Visible World is tiny; its revenue for its last fiscal year was only $3.7 million. It faces the same hurdles as any new TV tech provider: giant advertising agencies and media-buying services, whose economics are premised on mass production; broadcast TV networks and stations, which still dominate the marketing mind-set; and those jealous gatekeepers, the cable MSOs.

But the future doesn't hinge on a single company. Just as it was obvious from TiVo's introduction that DVRs would transform TV even if TiVo itself didn't make it, it's obvious that targeted TV is a big wave about to engulf the medium.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton

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