House of Dreams

Interpublic's Lab enables clients to explore, test, and deploy digital media strategies

To the right side of the foyer, flat-panel HDTV monitors flash with images piped in via DirecTV, Comcast Cable, Dish Network, Slingbox, and MSN TV. On the left, a decidedly less mesmerizing shelf displays a collection of clunky cameras and garage door opener-sized mobile phones.

"It's our wall of obsolete technology," says Lori Schwartz, vice president and director of Interpublic Group's Emerging Media Lab, motioning to the museum-like row of shelves. "Every day somebody puts something new up here."

This is how visitors are welcomed to the IPG Emerging Media Lab, a sprawling, loft-like space in an otherwise nondescript office tower in Los Angeles' Mid-Wilshire district. Launched earlier this year, the lab is a home of the not-too-distant future  an environment designed to offer IPG agencies and clients a space to test, evaluate, and ideally leverage the emerging communications trends that are shaping the media landscape.

"It's a knowledge center," Schwartz explains  a place to "see technology doing what it's supposed to do."

The Lab's main area comprises a series of wall-less "rooms"  kitchen, den, clubhouse, and conference space, among others  that represent areas of the home in which consumers interact with media. Conspicuously absent is a bathroom. However, there are several mobile carts, fully loaded with Apple iPods, Nokia SmartPhones, LG Vcast cell phones, Sanyo streaming videophones, Sony Walkman MP3 players, and Location Free TVs. These can easily be rolled wherever a client would like to "see how their campaign looks on different devices," Schwartz says.

An Internet-enabled Samsung HomePAD refrigerator in the "smart" kitchen enables consumers to watch TV, update their MySpace pages, or consult recipes while whipping up a five-course meal. In the digital den, which Schwartz refers to as a "spanked-out living room," a Sony 50-inch plasma TV is linked to all broadcast, cable, and satellite platforms and providers, as well as Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2 video game consoles; the entire setup is controlled by a Microsoft Media Center PC.

"You can watch 'The Nanny' or Anna Nicole [Smith], play DVDs, check e-mail, and surf the Web" with just a touch, Schwartz says. "A user is not going to know what [he or she] is watching. It's all just content."

"We're always preaching to our clients about how consumers are empowered, and this is the perfect place to demonstrate consumer behavior, how technology is changing media experiences," says Alan Cohen, vice president and managing director, Innovations and Entertainment, at IPG's Initiative Media. In the Lab, he says, we can "show clients what's possible  [experiment with] messages that break through the clutter."

In seeing what's possible, though, clients  many of whom are new-media neophytes  are confronted firsthand with the challenges of reaching multitasking, media-saturated consumers. To alleviate their fears, Schwartz stresses the concept behind the Lab: "It's an environment that's open and fun, filled with the freedom to innovate," she says. "This is an environment where you're allowed to think crazy stuff. We want people to dream here."

Hand Holding

But the Lab is "not just pure R&D," notes Greg Johnson, the facility's executive vice president and global director. With its reliance on "rigorous methodology," he says, "the Lab is an enabler...a place to get clients to not only understand what consumers are doing in their space, but comfortable enough" to take the next step.

It's a place for problem-solving as well, where clients can be introduced to the real ideas "behind the buzzwords," Schwartz adds. While blogs, podcasts, and social networking may be all the rage, they aren't relevant for every business. In the Lab, Schwartz says, she and her team can "calmly strip it down for clients, [explain] that they don't have to jump on every single" new-media option.

To that end, Johnson says, the Lab's staff can help clients by analyzing a hypothetical campaign and target audience, then suggesting strategies. The Media Lab works with advertisers including Sony, Microsoft, and L'Oreal to develop programs incorporating media platforms, including TiVo Product Watch and YouTube. If a client wants to learn about a specific new-media option, the Lab will arrange a full day of informational meetings on the topic, whether it pertains to the rapidly evolving wireless landscape or opportunities within Second Life, the 3-D virtual society built and maintained entirely by online residents.

"The greatest benefit I personally have received from the Lab has been education," says George J. DeBolt, vice president, media, promotions and partnership marketing for Initiative/IPG client Showtime Networks. "Our overall goal is to demonstrate that Showtime is a leader in emerging media, and I see the Lab playing a critical role in supporting that objective."

DeBolt says that the technologies explored in the Lab are vital to the future of Showtime's business. In a mature market like premium television, he says, nontraditional technologies offer growth opportunities for the foreseeable future.

For all of Interpublic's recent woes, its Emerging Media Lab is a beacon of success. There is talk of adding a second location in New York, and Interpublic sibling Lodestar Universal announced in July that it would open a similar lab in India.

Johnson says that the Lab's extranet (, blog (blog., and RSS feeds are critical to people collaborating with the facility. Online, the Lab serves as a digital hub, distributing news and analysis across IPG properties; an e-newsletter highlights the facility's latest research and case studies. All material is written by Interpublic staffers, while the Web efforts are coordinated by IPG Emerging Media Lab content editor Jeff Berg.

The function of the Lab, Schwartz adds, is to "figure out how to communicate, educate, and get information out" most effectively. 

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