Ma Bell Goes Into Ad Labor, Will Birth Screens, Search, Mags, Even Manhole Covers

After a period of relative quiet on Madison Avenue, a resurgent AT&T is ready to make an ambitious pitch to the ad industry. The plan, dubbed U-Verse, will be unveiled over the next several months and includes integrated, cross-platform advertising packages that leverage AT&T's "three-screen" digital TV, broadband and mobile subscriber base, but also have traditional media components ranging from print media, out-of-home and even some surprising new media such as sponsored manhole covers. The plan, which was discussed Thursday afternoon during a meeting of the Carat Digital Exchange in New York, was one of three promising new media developments unveiled during the rare public forum. The others included plans for the first ever large-scale addressable TV advertising test early next year, as well as a new TV navigation system that will utilize a PC-like pointing technology (see related stories in today's MediaDailyNews).

The heart of the AT&T plan, said Karl Spangenberg, executive vice president-advertising for AT&T, is its ability to deliver addressable advertising across TV, PC and mobile phone screens. "That's where the big win is," he said, noting that after AT&T completes its integration with SBC Communications, will deliver 19 million TV households, 12 million broadband households and 57 million mobile phone subscribers by 2008.

"I'm sitting here as the ad guy and my heart starts to beat a little faster," a giddy Spangenberg told advertising and media execs attending the forum.

While Spangenberg conceded that the plan still faces some big consumer privacy concerns, he said the real value would be AT&T's ability to deliver addressable, interactive advertising, making it easier for advertisers to measure their accountability. He also said it would fuel new forms of advertising "commerce."

A big component of the plan revolves around a new TV navigation system that AT&T has partnered with Microsoft on, and Spangenberg said the two companies are also working on a means of integrating online search directly into the interactive TV environment in hopes of tapping the multibillion dollar paid search marketplace.

"We are talking to Microsoft about how to make use of that. Stay tuned for that," he teased.

Spangenberg admitted that the plan is not without its obstacles, and that the complexity of the package would be chief among them. "It seems simple," he said, but added that new media planning and buying software still needs to be developed to make it easier for advertisers and agencies to manage "GRPs" across a cross TV, PC and mobile platform. Additionally, he bemoaned the confusing lack of standardization in the current interactive TV advertising marketplace, noting that a myriad of formats ranging from "speed bumps" to "telescoping" might deter some advertisers from getting their arms and minds around the medium.

Ma Bell, meanwhile, plans to expand its media offerings beyond the obvious digital variety to include a host of "traditional media," Spangenberg said, including a round of out-of-home options incorporating AT&T's 2,100 retail locations, kiosks, and even the manhole covers it owns in certain municipalities.

Manhole covers... "We can brand it," he said of the manhole covers. "It can be part of a sweepstakes or a contest."

AT&T is also looking to diversify into other traditional media, including TV programming and even magazine publishing.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to expand into the traditional media space - like magazines," said Spangenberg, adding, "There is something to be said about a print product as a complement to a digital media experience."

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