Of the many Holy Grails Madison Avenue has been pursuing over the last quarter century, interactive TV has proven to be among the most tantalizing, but also the most vexing. The idea of combining the story-telling power of TV's sight, sound and motion with the interactive or enhanced targeting capabilities of digital TV platforms has spawned numerous initiatives, trials, test beds that have provided plenty of interesting insights, but has yet to spawn the kind of scalable business that would enable most big marketers and agencies to incorporate it as a formal part of their media mix, and to devote significant advertising dollars to it. The reality is that enhanced TV advertising platforms remain piecemeal, complex and work intensive deterring all but the bravest from jumping in. That complexity also is spawning a new cottage industry for those brave enough to try and tame it.
The highest profile of those efforts has been the cable TV industry's own Canoe Ventures. Led by former Madison Avenue media services honcho David Verklin, Canoe so far has generated more questions than solutions, most of which emanate around its time frame for introducing scalable, easy-to-use solutions for both addressable and interactive TV advertising, as well an enhanced data streams generate by digital TV set-tops. While Canoe plans to begin rolling those features out early next year, others are stepping in to fill in the gap.
"Wouldn't you just love to have something on the TV set where the consumer can just press a button and enter your sweepstakes or make a request for more information," says Chris Pizzurro, a former top digital media expert at Turner Broadcasting System, who has partners with other top agency and technology executives to form the Leap Media Group, whose goal is to work with smaller, and mid-size agencies to help make that promise a reality.
Pizzurro, whom many on Madison Avenue know from the "Media at the Millennium"work he did with former Turner executive Barry Fischer that helped cable win share from broadcast TV advertising budgets over the past decade, wants to do the same for interactive TV. But instead of focusing on the biggest shops, and clients, whom he says already have well established interactive TV teams in place, Pizzurro says Leap was created to service smaller, and mid-size agencies looking to develop an interactive TV capability.
"We're offering them a turnkey service that they can then white label for their clients as they see fit," he says. "They can begin offering this as a service to their clients, without having to build it themselves."
Pizzurro, who has partnered with Courtenay Harry, a top executive at interactive TV specialist BlackArrow, and a media buyer at MediaVest before that, and cable TV vet Stuart Lipson, says Leap has been operating in "stealth mode" throughout the summer, but is already involved in a dozen interactive TV projects with some smaller, as-yet-undisclosed agencies.
Pizzurro, who first disclosed Leap's plans to MediaDailyNews during a recent MPG Collaborative Alliance meeting in New York, said, "We're doing this because of what everyone is talking about in this room."
The meeting, which was one of a series hosted by MPG Executive Vice President-Televisual Applications Mitch Oscar, featured a series of presentations on the slow, painful progress the TV industry was making in building a scalable interactive TV infrastructure.
Like other Collaborative Alliance meetings, Oscar began this one with some jokes about the progress - or lack thereof - of Canoe, which is managed by his former boss, Verklin, who initiated the alliance concept at Carat. When Verklin left Carat, Oscar took the concept to Havas' MPG unit, under the wing of COO Steve Lanzano, who is leaving to become the new president of the Television Advertising Bureau, and one of his key objectives is to help facilitate interactive TV advertising opportunities for broadcast TV stations nationwide.
Others have been rushing to fill the gap. Smaller interactive specialist agencies such as Norwalk, Conn.-based Media Storm, and New York City-based U.DIG and BrightLine ITV, as well as media companies themselves.
One of them, Cablevision Advanced Platforms, has been building turnkey interactive TV advertising programs for advertisers and agencies to help jumpstart the marketplace until Canoe and others can provide meaningful, scalable, easy-to-use solutions. While Canoe is still months away from rolling out an addressable TV advertising solution, Cablevision Advanced Platforms Executive Vice President Barry Frey, tells MDN, his unit has already begun rolling it out.
Leap's Pizzurro describes the current state of the interactive TV business as transitional, and he believes standardized advertising processes and systems will eventually emerge, but in the meantime, he says it is spawning a need for businesses like Leap to step in and fill the gap, and to facilitate deals between agencies and interactive TV providers.
He says Leap's basic services of planning, buying and executing interactive TV campaigns cost agencies nothing, and that Leap's fees come directly from acquiring advertising inventory from cable and satellite operators and from other interactive TV platform providers. He says those fees come in the form of a commission on the media billings that come on top of the one the agencies Leap represents would continue to receive.
For services that go beyond the basic media buying and campaign management, such as creative and enhanced research and analytics, Pizzurro says Leap charges additional costs.
Down the road, he says, Leap might bet into other forms of interactive media, such as online and mobile, but for the moment, he says the goal is to work strictly with digital TV advertising opportunities available from cable, satellite and over-the-air broadcasters.
"We want to keep the conversation in TV, because that's where 98% of the money is, and that's where 98% of the viewing is," he says.