Interactive TV - it's the creative, stupid!    

Interactive TV seems to inspire two responses from the vast majority of marketers. Firstly, fear - they know that iTV is important, it's the future. Secondly, ridicule - those who have seen the existing handful of iTV ads find them bland and uninspiring. They are right to fear - already over 30% of households have access to some form of TV interactivity, and the figure is growing rapidly. But they are wrong to think that the current lacklustre crop of advertising demonstrates the limitations of interactive TV. Sadly, agencies, clients and TV companies conspire to make interactive TV as dull as it is at present. But truly creative interactive advertising is waiting in the wings, and it's going to be worth coming up with that first piece of good work, just to see the look of shock on the faces of the cynics.

There are many reasons why iTV advertising has yet to scale the creative heights. Firstly, because of the transactional capabilities of iTV, most advertisers see this first and foremost as a new direct selling medium. As a result, most ads have been made by direct marketers and are about as exciting as watching envelopes fall on your doormat. Television is primarily about entertainment. That it can now be used as a sales medium is no doubt a good thing, but it shouldn't mean consigning over 50 years of learning to the dustbin and making every ad look like a brochure website on steroids (with a couple of tubs of egg protein for good measure).

Related to this is the second problem: apprehensive clients, suffering from short-termism, are not prepared to take risks when exploiting a costly new medium. The eminent accountability of interactive TV has led advertisers to focus solely on immediate ROI to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Compare this with the birth of traditional TV advertising: there were (and still are) very few accurate measurements that could prove the effectiveness or otherwise of TV advertising. What has resulted is arguably the richest most creative marketing medium of all, one that builds long-term relationships. Not everything can be measured in terms of immediate sales or coupon returns, and advertisers would do well to remember that they are representing brands whose future prospects could be spoiled by a moment of get-rich-quick madness.

Finally there are production-related issues which conspire to drag the level of iTV advertising downwards. The techno-fear of agencies and clients has been the biggest barrier to getting the best minds in our industry involved. Most are unclear as to the exact capabilities and requirements of iTV, and so will let themselves be led by uninspiring broadcaster-supplied templates or production-company advice. Technology is a red herring, it is our slave, not our master. It takes courage and strength of will to bend technology to new uses, but the most exciting creative executions I have seen have always been driven by creatives with little or no understanding of the medium's mechanics, assisted by technicians with a deep desire to push their medium forwards.

The future looks brighter. With Sky bringing Open fully into the fold, Ondigital becoming ITV digital, and closer co-operation between NTL and Telewest, the marketplace is a little less daunting. Broadcasters offer more and more ways of bringing interactivity into the TV environment: interactive programming is now a reality, and iTV spots needn't always conform to the "last 30 seconds in break" rule. Interactive TV to date has been hindered by a focus on direct response, immediate returns, and playing safe with technology, but great things will come as soon as we learn to look beyond the end of our noses. A good idea is a good idea is a good idea. Just take a look at what we've managed to make out of 30 seconds of linear TV. The canvas is now bigger, not smaller, we can only fill it if we think big.

© Dan Sumption, July 2001

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