Tim Hanlon is used to puzzled looks when he hands people his business card. Few have ever heard of his title -- director of emerging contacts -- and fewer still understand what he does.
Hanlon, 35, doesn't mind explaining. In his role at Starcom IP, the online division of media-buying company Starcom Worldwide, Hanlon studies new ways for advertisers to get their messages in front of consumers. If you think putting ads on fruit is the limit (both ABC TV and Web site Ask Jeeves have tried this tactic), Hanlon has news for you.
Interactive TV, handheld devices, personal video recorders, and other techie gadgets all have the potential to change how advertising works, he says. His job is to figure out which of these innovations might stick in the marketplace so advertisers can take advantage of them. "I trace a road map to this space, just like an equity analyst would at an investment bank," he says.
There are a handful of Hanlons in the advertising business these days. Over the past two years, media-buying companies owned by such conglomerates as McCann-Erickson, Bcom3 (the holding company created by the merger of Leo Burnett and the MacManus Group), Grey Global, and WPP Group have recruited senior-level directors to research new forms of media that go way beyond the Web.
No one knows exactly what to call these seers, which explains their quirky titles. All of these futurists share years of experience in media buying and planning: the art of crafting the right mix of ads on TV, radio, billboards, Web sites, and other outlets so a client reaches as many of its target consumers as possible. Now they've been charged with answering the question: What's next?
THE OLD ROUTINE.
Their answers could have big implications in one of the most competitive businesses in the world. For decades, media buying was fairly routine: An agency's creative team would dream up a clever campaign for a client -- then leave it to in-house media buyers to crunch the data and find the best outlets to promote the campaign.
During the past several years, however, several large agencies have spun off their media-buying and planning units into separate companies. Starcom emerged from ad agency Leo Burnett in 1998, for instance, while Young & Rubicam formed Media Edge in 1997. The motive behind such spin-offs was simple: Expand the client base.
Media-buying companies now compete for an advertiser's business just like an agency fights for its creative account. Some clients keep all of their work within the same advertising family, but others don't: Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, for example, retains ad shop Goodby, Silverstein & Partners to handle creative work for the Discover card but goes to Starcom for media buying.
GOLD IN THE BANK.
Suddenly, media-buying companies have a huge incentive to differentiate themselves from competitors -- and hiring futurists is one way to do that. "It gives them luster for sure," says John Sweeney, advertising professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "And if they see the right combination a year ahead of everyone else, it will be gold in their bank."
Plenty of "gumshoe investigation" is needed to discover that gold, says Starcom IP's Hanlon. Indeed, emerging-media specialists say they spend the bulk of their time attending trade shows, meeting with companies that are developing interactive technologies, and testing new products to weed out duds. Then they share their knowledge with staffers and clients through road-show presentations or research papers.
Universal McCann's director of media futures, Mitch Oscar, writes a weekly newsletter about important domestic developments. "It's not just evangelizing the space," adds Director of Science and Technology Russ Booth at Grey Global's Mediacom. With so many companies pitching new technologies and services, he says, part of his job is to help clients evaluate which ones may stick around for the long term.
The whole idea, of course, is to sign up advertisers for pilot tests. That isn't an easy task given that market penetration for many new-media technologies is low. Still, some companies are willing to give emerging media a chance. Pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline recently agreed to advertise on Wink Communications, an interactive-TV provider, after several months of prodding by David Adelman, director of convergence at Digital Edge, the digital-media division of WPP's Media Edge. Wink will run GlaxoSmithKline commercials that let viewers request additional product information by clicking on an icon with their remote control.
Adelman got his start in advertising 12 years ago as a media researcher at Young & Rubicam. Before his current gig as director of convergence, he led the technology practice at Media Edge, overseeing tech support and developing an application that filters data on media spending to create reports for staffers. When Media Edge CEO Beth Gordon asked him about a year ago to switch gears and study emerging media, it was a welcome change.
"I was up to my neck in wires and servers," Adelman says. His new job is more satisfying, he adds, because it brings him closer to the company's core product: media buying and planning.
Starcom IP, for one, has decided to expand its emerging-media practice. This month Hanlon was joined by four staffers who will handle direct-marketing, legal, research, and creative aspects of emerging-media projects.
The direct-marketing person, for instance, will make sure a client running an interactive-TV commercial has adequate customer-service support to answer incoming consumer queries. The legal expert will handle consumer privacy issues that arise from interactive advertising. "We think this area is going to be a big part of our future," says Starcom IP head Rishad Tobaccowala.
Could be, but much depends on consumers. Will they really flock to a device, such as TiVo, that pauses live TV? Or to a wireless gizmo that beams a message to their set-top box so it records an episode of E.R. while they're away from home? "For every killer app, there are many more silly toys," Sweeney says. Emerging-media futurists -- and the companies that employ them -- are betting they'll be able to tell the difference.
By Jennifer Gill in New York