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WASHINGTON-Chiat/Day's entrance into the infomercial business is through a different door than the one most agencies are using to answer the latest threat to their livelihood.

In what one infomercial executive called a "bizarre" move, Chiat plans to become a direct marketer-buying rights to golf, motivational, cosmetics and other products that it will own and market.

Bob Wolf, the agency's North American CEO, spent last week scouting out potential producer and media buying joint-venture partners at NIMA International's midyear conference here. He has also popped up at other industry events, virtually alone among ad agency brethren.

"The whole idea is to own intellectual property," Mr. Wolf said, noting that production and media buying chores are "only a fee and commission business" unlikely to yield the returns of a hit infomercial product.

"We hope we can bring more sophistication and a research base" to the industry, he said.

Chiat wants to market five or six new products a year, with the first tentatively planned for this fall. It will subcontract produc-tion and buying.

The as yet unnamed venture will be headed by Mr. Wolf, with plans to create infomercials for Chiat's ad clients, including one planned this fall for Nissan Motor Corp. USA.

But several infomercial industry executives, including those approached by Mr. Wolf, expressed doubts that an advertising agency could easily adapt its skills to their business.

They also seemed threatened by the would-be interloper, privately speculating that Chiat would exploit their expertise to learn the business and then abandon them.

Some questioned whether Chiat had the capital required to produce enough shows to guarantee a hit, since seven of eight new programs fail. And they said rising media prices are making it tougher for everyone to reap the fortunes made a year or two ago on infomercial stand-outs like Susan Powter.

Major marketers are continuing to throw their weight-and credibility-into the infomercial business. And although few were in attendance at the conference, they're being eagerly welcomed to an industry trying hard to shed its negative image.

Estee Lauder USA last weekend began airing a new program promoting its natural Origins skincare line, after trashing an earlier effort that never aired.

Prudential Real Estate and Century 21 Real Estate Corp. are simultaneously producing image-oriented programs that promote their national franchises; Prudential's also will provide referrals to local brokers.

On the technology front, IBM Personal Computer Co. and Apple Computer plan their own efforts, promoting new technologies or specific features for home use. They're also expected to advertise on a new computer-related programming block being planned by Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. and Missing Link Communications (AA, May 2).

The conference saw the first appearances by executives from the home shopping industry, also struggling to redefine itself for the future. "I think it will be very difficult short-term for the home shopping business," said Gerald Hogan, president of Home Shopping Network.

Mr. Hogan and Doug Briggs, president of QVC Electronic Retailing, were both just added to NIMA's board.

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