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As computers, satellite communications, cable and video technologies advance in quantum leaps every year, we are moving closer and closer to the "information superhighway." And everyone familiar with the subject wants to know the same thing:

How will a global interactive network change our business-the business of building brands and moving consumers with effective, powerful marketing communications?

I believe that the information highway will have as great an impact on our world as the television and the personal computer.

In fact, it promises to be the salvation of the global advertising industry.

Of course, in trying to assess the potential impact of the information highway, we've got one small problem. It doesn't exist yet.

But let us assume for today that it is already in place, and is teeming with interactive communication and data gathering of many different kinds.

Let's move ahead through time, to the year 2004.

People still live in rather conventional houses-except that the wood, brick and cement are now made of plastic. If you take a look inside these houses, things also look very much the same-except for a mysterious panel on the wall.

When not in use, it looks like a thick picture frame-possibly displaying museum-quality artwork by, let us say, Vincent Van Gogh. The only difference being that this Van Gogh you can talk to.

"Vincent," I say to it, because Vincent is the name my PC TV responds to, "Vincent, show me the World Cup match that was played in Rio at 9 o'clock this morning."

And in a few seconds, Van Gogh's self-portrait is replaced by high-definition video footage of a soccer match.

After the match is over, I can request a Humphrey Bogart movie. I might sit in on a class in French literature being taught at the Sorbonne. Check live financial reports from Mexico City. Or visit all of the hot spots of a travel destination before I book the airline tickets.

In fact, my options are endless.

Unlike the media environment of yesteryear, in which the communication was one-way and the user was essentially a passive viewer or reader, the environment in the year 2004 lets each individual user interact with the medium in a totally controlled and customized way.

Now, you may be wondering how all this technological wizardry has affected the business of advertising.

One thing is certain. It isn't the same as it was back in 1994. Just as the consumer has had to learn a whole new set of skills just to watch interactive television, we in the advertising community have had to learn a new set of skills to be able to create interactivity.

What interactive has done is effectively eliminate the timing gap between image advertising and tactical promotions. Interactive has allowed us to target or "address" the audience with absolute precision.

Let's go back to May 1994, and find out where fantasies and reality meet.

As I see it, we are at a critical point in the history of advertising. We've got only two choices.

We can play it safe and stand around and wait to see what happens with interactive media-whether all of these lofty predictions are actually going to come true.

Or we can dive in and do everything in our power to make sure that they do come true.

I urge you to choose interactivity over inactivity.

It will cost money and time and a good deal of sweat. And yes, there will be mistakes, miscues and dead-ends. But in the long run, global interactive communications has the potential to transform the advertising industry.

How? By making our advertising answerable, and therefore, accountable.

Over time, we'll get to know who our audience is and we will be able to address our communications to their needs and tastes.

And we will know right then and there if our advertisements generate a response.

And once we are able to accurately measure responses, I guarantee you that clients will increase their marketing communications budgets exponentially.

What stands between us and the interactive highway? I believe there are three main challenges that we face:

First, the hardware or the "pipeline." How will interactive service be delivered? There are clear technical barriers, challenges that differ in size and scope as we move about the world. And there are also clear opportunities to exploit.

Second, the message-the commercial content that we offer-will have to change. And in order to change the content of the message, the creative quotient of our industry is going to have to go way up.

Finally, there is the most important component of all: the interactive consumer. Will everyone's response to interactivity be positive? Who will use it first? And how will they use it?

The interactive revolution is all about choice.

So we can't presume that if we put it on the screen, someone will watch it. Programs will have to become more entertaining, informative or educational than ever before. The same must be said for advertising we create.

Agencies used to confine themselves to advertisements that interrupted regular programs and editorial matter. Interactive advertising will give us the opportunity to create programs in which the content and the commercials are inseparable.

Agencies used to wait for clients to approach them with brands that needed advertising. Increasingly, interactive advertising agencies will become entertainment entrepreneurs, taking the initiative in proposing new program vehicles that are also effective forms of marketing communications.

Of course, this advertising must have an audience before it can entertain, and inform and persuade. Proprietary research conducted this year by Bates USA indicates that the interactive audience is ready and willing.

Why am I so supremely confident about the positive impact of interactivity?

Because first and foremost, I love great advertising. There is nothing to beat the feeling of creating a great commercial, a spot that gives the viewer pleasure as it gives the client sales.

And I believe that interactive technology will enable us to create the greatest ads this industry has ever seen.

Michael Bungey is CEO of Bates Worldwide, New York. This piece is excerpted from a speech at the International Advertising Association's 34th World Advertising Congress last month.

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