Sorrell plays the game on `Emillionaire' panel

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Who wants to be an e-millionaire? Sir Martin Sorrell wants to know.

The WPP Group chief executive last week grilled contestants on a new U.K. game show called "The Emillionaire Show." The program, which debuted July 10, offered budding Web-preneurs a chance to win $1.5 million in funding for their proposed e-commerce ventures.

More than 7,000 hopeful U.K. dot-com millionaires e-mailed their ideas to emillionaireshow.com. Andersen Consulting winnowed them down to 15 concepts in five categories: leisure, travel, family, services and lifestyle.

The 30-minute program aired live on the U.K.'s Channel 4 for five weekday evenings. Every night, three contestants had 60 seconds each to pitch their ideas before a studio audience as well as a panel of three celebrities and business tycoons, including Sir Martin and Tim Jackson, founder of eBay's European rival QXL.com.

AD, WEB SHOPS AID PITCHES

Each finalist was assigned both an ad agency and a Web design shop. In an effort to enliven the contestants' sometimes shaky pitches, rough print ads and frames from the Web site were projected behind them. The advertising and online shops agreed to participate for free.

After interrogating the candidates, the panelists voted for their favorite idea of the night. So did the wildly enthusiastic studio audience. However, the votes that counted were those that viewers at home cast by e-mail and telephone (at 40 cents per call) for their favorite contestant each night.

At the end of the week, each of the five e-entrepreneur finalists, who included a music teacher and a policeman, scurried away with an ad agency to film a quick commercial and return for the final shoot-out on a sixth show on Sunday night.

`NOT A CASH GIVEAWAY'

"The series is not about a cash giveaway; it's about creating a viable dot-com business," said David Lloyd, Channel 4's head of news, current affairs and business programs.

Besides $1.5 million for the winner, another $1.5 million will be divided equally among the other four finalists.

The July 13 episode featuring Sir Martin included a contestant identified only as Mr. X. The contestant, whose entire face was never shown on-camera, insisted on being anonymous because his idea--to offer car owners access to highly discounted car parts--would anger the auto industry. (Publicity material later revealed that he is Paul Clarke, owner of an after-sales company called AutoConnect.)

Sir Martin gave the thumbs down to Beepboutique.com, a Web site that helps visitors track down unusual items, such as a pair of genuine blue suede shoes. Ironically, this was the site the studio audience overwhelmingly decided was the funkiest idea that night--as compared with the car parts retailer and hairtohair.net, a Web service for hairdressers, which Sir Martin decided was the evening's best idea.

An overall favorite among the panelists, studio audience and viewers was Youreable.com, a portal that would offer information and merchandise aimed at the U.K.'s 8.5 million disabled people. The idea was movingly pitched by Joe Rajko, a wheelchair-bound charity worker who shattered his spine in a motorcycle crash.

One panelist, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, entrepreneurial founder of cut-rate European airline EasyJet and a chain of Internet cafes called EasyEverything, was especially impressed. "If you don't get funding from here, give me a call," he said.

Youreable.com's ads, created by Grey Global Group, demonstrated that the disabled can be adventurous vacationers. One ad portrayed a huge desert, with the symbol for disabled access stamped on the sand. Another, for scuba divers, showed the same symbol underwater.

"His idea was so good, I was tempted to invest in it," said Tim Mellors, creative director of Grey Worldwide. "But he's so determined, one way or another, he'll see this through. I have even been told that people have called the program and offered to back him."

Other ideas like personalized children's stories (bethereatbedtime.com) and travel sites (mykindofholiday.com) seemed to offer little revenue potential or required huge amounts of investment and research. And even the most creative concepts didn't necessarily come with charismatic contestants.

Colin Robinson, a Mars Inc. employee, had a good business-to-business concept for a collective buying site for schools but lacked personality. "I want to do something I'm passionate about," he said in a monotone as he sipped a cup of tea.

"If you're going to do these things, you need to weigh what's in it for you. It needs to be good for the profile as well as be fun and lively for the team," said Minnie Moll, marketing director for ad shop HHCL & Partners, a London agency that worked with the three leisure category contestants.

For WPP-owned Syzygy, the show could raise the profile of online agencies.

"People still have difficulty understanding the concept of what we do as a digital media agency," said Charlie Pownall, Syzygy's communications manager.

FOLLOW THE WINNERS

In the next step, U.K. production company Princess Productions will follow the winners for a future program about their attempts to launch a successful dot-com.

The $3 million prize money came, in part, from Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth, who recently quit her job at Mr. Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting, a U.K. satellite TV company. She and her boyfriend, U.K. PR guru Matthew Freud of Freud Communications, co-founded an Internet incubator company called Oxygen Holdings.

"I hope that the winners would actually have succeeded on their own," Mr. Freud said. "I think they'll have had a fantastic shortcut."

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