Interpublic Tinkers With More Labs, Eyes London, Tokyo, Other Markets

Ad agency giant Interpublic, which recently folded its centralized Interpublic Media Group, is expanding, not contracting its corporate-level media initiatives. The centerpiece of the plan is an expansion of the holding company's emerging media lab into other markets were Interpublic agencies and clients can begin to experiment with the impact of new media technologies on consumers in various regions around the world. Originally launched earlier this year in Los Angeles, Interpublic is discussing the launch of labs in London and Tokyo next year.

"Japan is a very different media experience than we have here," says one insider, adding, "And Europe is very different too. Text messaging is now more prevalent in Europe than it is here."

Like the Los Angeles lab, the new labs would serve a dual function, operating as a showroom for clients, shareholders and the press to demonstrate advanced media technologies, as well as a working laboratory where Interpublic agency executives can glean insights about their impact on consumer behavior.

"Our business has changed. It used to be about buying media. Now it's all about the consumer," says the Interpublic exec, not that the lab gives agencies the ability to experiment with emerging technologies in a physical environment where they can test consumer interaction, as well as advertising and commerce applications.

Such labs have become popular in academic institutions such as Ball State University's Center for Media Design, or within big media companies like Time Warner, but some agencies have been loath to invest in media technology R&D, which is often difficult to get an immediate return on. While it might seem ironic that Interpublic, the most financially constrained of the major agency holding companies, would be the one to invest so aggressively in the future, the company's board believes it is an imperative if its agencies are to remain on the leading edge of consumer behavior. In the U.S., for example, executives say they are racing against a deadline of 2009, when the U.S. will officially phase out analog television broadcasting and convert 100% to digital spectrum.

Interpublic agencies also have a long legacy steeped in laboratory work and media R&D. McCann-Erickson was one of the first sponsors of MIT's famed Media Lab.

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