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ONCE UPON A TIME, DAVE Gerard had to find a radio spot. The then Scali producer went down to the agency basement, rummaged around for three hours, and finally found the errant cassette. One piece of plastic and magnetic material. No credits. Nothing about when, where, why, for whom the spot was made or how much it cost. Just a tape-which promptly broke when it was inserted into the recorder.

"An idea was born," says James Berry, who tells the story. Berry is VP-operations at CD Archives, a New York archiving and CD premastering facility, and Gerard is now a producer at Lowe & Partners/SMS. Both concern themselves daily with a problem all agencies, particularly aging ones, face: storing and maintaining the myriad creative components that constitute their livelihood. This frustrating scenario of searching for elements is repeated with disturbing frequency across the country; if you've worked for an agency, you've been there. Videotape disintegrates. Audiotape breaks. Reprints get lost or used up. Producers leave, taking crucial information stored inside their heads. People forget who did what and what happened to it. Cassettes and cartridges pile up, fall over, run away and hide. In short, archiving is a huge problem. And even if the technology exists to store ads properly-a CD, after all, may last for centuries-ready access to them, and to all the pertinent information that should accompany them, is yet another hurdle.

"We're all trying to move toward online video-on-demand systems of our own," says Geoff Katz, who manages the digital imaging studio at FCB/San Francisco. Even so, no one has gotten there yet. Online is a happy myth, and so is on-demand. But ways do exist for storing all types of creative material, from commercials and print ads to raw footage and presentation materials, in a digital format. The year-old, New York-based CD Archives, for instance, puts material onto CD-ROM for a relatively inexpensive setup fee of $250, plus $150 per hour for inputting commercials. It takes an hour to do six to eight spots, and a single CD holds 36 minutes of laserdisc-quality video, including stereo audio tracks, or 72 minutes of VHS-quality material. Additional copies of the CD cost $75 each. Berry says the system is excellent for radio, which requires a single or double-speed CD-ROM player for either the Macintosh or Windows environment. For video, an agency needs a triple-speed player (he recommends the NEC 3XE, which costs about $500) and an MPEG decompression card, for another $500. It's the fairly new MPEG compression standard (the algorithms that store only the changes in each frame instead of all the data in every frame), by the way, that makes digital video a reasonable reality.

Print can also be scanned in, although there hasn't been much demand for that, Berry says. Whether video, audio or print, all of the information goes into what is essentially a customized database, which also tracks all of the corresponding creative credits, job numbers, budget overruns and client quirks-whatever the agency designates. The system is a simple point-and-click one. Once on the CD, nothing can be changed, but spots can be output to a three-quarter-inch deck attached to the computer. It's a quick and decent way to dub a tape. Berry says interest in the system has been "phenomenal," although agencies have been slow to sign on.

What CD Archives doesn't do is address the networking problem, which, as Berry readily acknowledges, requires a "gigantic investment." That's why people like Barry Cox, director of information systems at BBDO's Los Angeles and San Francisco offices (which are getting rewired this year), are still busy contemplating the matter-and waiting for technology to evolve and prices to drop. "We don't have a comprehensive strategy," he says. "Some things are on CD-ROM, some are on optical disc, some on laserdisc. We won't address this issue until next year. It's a budget question as well as a technical one."

His agency, like its multioffice counterparts, is testing various solutions and looking at high-speed network vendors, which he thinks may ultimately handle both storage and distribution. He likens the current situation to that of the telephone and voice mail: first, everyone ran out to buy their own answering machines, but now those services are provided-and often enhanced-by telecommunications companies. Each storage medium has its pros and cons. CD-ROMs hold a lot of information, but the quality may not be as high. Rewritable optical discs are high end, much like Beta (we all know what happened to Beta), but magnetic, which has poor staying power. Laserdiscs are high-enough quality, but they don't hold as many spots.

And none of these deals with the need to distribute material across an electronic network. The system of choice for some of the larger agencies and clients, such as Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, FCB, McCann-Erickson and Y&R, is AIM 21, a two-year-old New York company. The system itself is network-based and runs on an Oracle SQL database engine. President/CEO Brad Fisher says one of the company's clients already has over 3,500 commercials in the system, but his vision comprises far more than archiving. "Our concept is to provide an image enterprise engine to help manage their ideas. Agencies are factories for advertising, yet they have no way to archive, manage and communicate their creative work. In another industry, that would be unheard of. To find that spot you did two years ago, the one with the kid and the dog, is almost impossible. It shouldn't be that way."

The images in Fisher's "image enterprise engine" are not only commercials but also raw footage, rough cuts, focus group tapes, presentation materials and print ads. His aim is to get anything and everything that can be digitized to the desktop of a creative director, account supervisor or brand manager, whenever and wherever necessary. That includes stock material and competitive data analyses; AIM 21 is developing partnerships with companies that provide those elements. The next evolution of the system will also link ads with the files that created them, which means that anyone with security clearance will be able to pull an ad and update it. "It will become a day-to-day workhorse," says Fisher. For a monthly fee ($2,000 base cost), an agency becomes part of AIM 21's technical consortium, which means it is licensed to use the software. Again, the database is customized, and the system is updated two to four times per year. Additional users cost extra, and in most cases, the agency has what's come to be known as the AIM 21 room where someone goes to retrieve material and make tapes.

FCB/San Francisco is using AIM 21 solely for video right now, says Katz, and has everything produced since January 1992 on the system, along with all its historical Levi's spots. Katz says they initially wanted to get literally everything on it, but so far have settled for greatest hits from the past. "Our goal is to set up a corporate video database of everything we've produced," he explains, but "our limitation now is real-time access to high-quality video." It's no problem to request a play-list, but someone still has to go to the AIM 21 room, insert and remove laserdiscs and make a tape. Laserdiscs are themselves limitations, he adds. They hold only 24 minutes of video, and "North America alone has a lot of videos, not to mention 155 other offices around the world. We're doing some tests to put commercials on CD-ROM, but we need three-quarter-inch or better resolution at 30 frames per second to be happy campers."

McCann-Erickson/New York has been using AIM 21 for about a year, and has cataloged at least 300 commercials, add-ing about 10 a month. It wasn't that they didn't have some form of computer-based archiving in place, says Danielle Korn, VP-manager of broadcast production. "What we didn't usually have is the luxury of everything in one place." She says AIM 21 is wonderful for those midnight new-business panics, "but we want to be able to see this everywhere-from one PC to another, from San Francisco to New York. I don't see that happening too fast."

Yet she's convinced that more will happen soon. People aren't even used to thinking about the system, much less have they become sophisticated about its far-reaching applications at this point.

Says Korn: "We haven't even begun to scratch the surface."

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