Gone in 30 Seconds

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 16, 2007

As they have for more than half a century, thousands of advertising executives, art directors, writers and moviemakers converge tomorrow in Cannes, France, for the industry's annual Oscars week -- the Lions festival, which honors the year's best ads. The superstars of the show are the 30-second TV commercials submitted by ad agencies.

But as the creative types gather to honor one another, the 30-second TV spot is imperiled as never before. Its competition: A dizzying array of digital and Internet options, many of which produce instant results and valuable consumer data, something that TV ads cannot.

Once upon a time, ad firms dreamed up campaigns on sketchbooks and typewriters, and bought television network time in 30-second chunks. Now, if agencies do not know how to use Internet search algorithms and data analysis, how to build turnkey e-commerce sites with Flash video, how to shoot viral video and plant the results on YouTube, they are increasingly useless to clients.

The pop-culture idea of a Madison Avenue adman -- "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" or Darrin Stephens from "Bewitched" -- is becoming a fading afterimage in today's ad industry.

"My Darrin Stephens is a piece of software," said Benjamin Palmer, president of the Barbarian Group, which has produced more than 300 Web sites for clients but not one 30-second spot for television.

Still, the world's major advertising firms are not yet hemorrhaging dollars or clients. Of the world's four major advertising holding companies, massive conglomerates that own dozens of ad agencies much like separate record labels in a big music company, only Interpublic Group lost money in 2006.

The status quo has its defenders. In a January Advertising Week essay, DDB Worldwide Communications Group Chairman Bob Scarpelli argued that the Super Bowl, the unrivaled showplace of 30-second TV commercials, is still a good buy for some advertisers. "At a time when we know it is getting increasingly difficult to reach our fractionated, time-deprived, attention-deficit-suffering customers, the Super Bowl is still the one place where their interest and our interest as marketers line up perfectly and collide," Scarpelli wrote.

But parts are starting to fall off of the decades-old industry machine.

Consumers are spending more time online and less watching network television. When they do watch, more viewers have the ability to use TiVo to bypass ads. Consumers demand more from their advertising -- they want product information, consumer reviews and purchase options, not just a glib message pitched by a celebrity. And they want information tailored for them, not a mass audience.

"I don't have children, so I don't need to see [ads] for diapers," said Darin Brown, chief strategy officer for Avenue A/Razorfish, owned by digital ad company aQuantive. "I get that the diaper is going to be effective, and the ad entertained me, but it's not going to cause me to buy because it's not relevant to my situation."

Microsoft agreed to buy aQuantive for $6 billion last month because it specializes in using sophisticated data-crunching tools to monitor how consumers use digital advertising. The process allows advertisers to reallocate their spending for optimum effect.

"I believe that search[-based] and other online advertising is taking away from the off-line [or traditional] budgets of marketers, and one reason is it's more accountable," said Karl Siebrecht, president of Atlas Enterprise Solutions, which aQuantive also owns. "You can send your message out there and understand if people click on it downstream, and if they click, do they purchase? If you're selling Toyotas, you can see if they asked for a specific dealer location."

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