Online Ads: Ready For Their Close-Up

The 30-second television ad. To the creative directors at Madison Avenue's largest ad agencies, it is their focus, their world, their definition of happiness. Such spots are the means to glory, whether it's from a showy debut during the Super Bowl or a prestigious award at the annual Cannes Advertising Festival. Online ads, on the other hand, have largely been ignored. Top agencies often outsource them to specialists or give them to separate in-house staffs, often banished to a geeks' corner. This "online ghetto" syndrome may be one reason that the vast majority of video ads now running on the Net are mere hand-me-downs from TV. Some of the best creative minds just haven't been into the Net.

Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) MSN is trying to change all that. The Web portal recently asked four ad agencies known for their unconventional advertising to experiment with new forms of online messages for their clients. The draw? MSN, which attracts more than 350 million visitors a month to its portal and e-mail service, is giving away millions of dollars' worth of extra space and technical support, as long as the advertisers buy some ads up front. The agencies' efforts are just now hitting computer screens, beginning with a campaign for consumer-electronics giant Sharp Corp. (SHCAY ). In return for giving away ad space deep inside the MSN site and on its home page, MSN hopes the program will persuade the biggest agencies and their marquee clients to direct more of their creative energy toward the Net. At the least, says MSN's marketing director, Eric Hadley, "I want us to be associated with breakthrough brands."

Hadley is stacking the odds in his favor. The four agencies he signed up for his initiative, called MSN Creative Connections, are respected for their innovative online creations. First off the blocks is Wieden & Kennedy. In October, it launched a moody mystery online and through TV ads to hawk Sharp's new $10,000 Aquos line of liquid-crystal-display TVs. The TV ad opens with the scene of a man swimming in a pool gazing up at his lover in a château window. An orange Volkswagen Karmann Ghia suddenly careens into the pool.

The TV spot never even pitches the pricey set and, instead, is designed to draw viewers to the Web. There, they can discover that the man in the pool is part of a larger mystery, with multiple story lines and blogs about the characters. Embedded within the mystery's clues are invitations to learn more about the Aquos. "Whereas people are zapping most TV advertising, the Net is amazing for drawing people in, if our ingenuity is up to it," says Ty Montague, Wieden & Kennedy's chief creative officer on the campaign. In the first week, the site got 1.3 million page views from visitors.

The Microsoft unit has offered its technical expertise to help shape content and improve the look of Sharp's online work. It also intertwined its content with Sharp's -- providing a link next to an image of the sinking VW to an MSN article about how to escape from a submerged car.

The campaigns of the other three agencies will hit the spotlight during the next few months. New York's Deutsch Inc. put together a campaign for Revlon Inc. (REV ) that lets consumers make Web movies featuring their own digital photos. Miami agency Crispin, Porter & Bogusky is helping Burger King Corp. position its ads as entertainment rather than just ads., a fowl version of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, will be presented as a tab at the top of MSN's Fox Sports page, along with tabs for the NBA, NFL, and NASCAR. "It creates a sense of credibility that we're a content provider," says Russ Klein, Burger King's chief marketing officer.

Not all the firms MSN is working with are trying to sell more burgers or makeup. Paul Lavoie of the Toronto agency Taxi is using MSN's offer of $1 million in free media to benefit Covenant House, a charity that helps street kids. Lavoie says his team is exploring several options for the campaign. One possibility is to create fake home pages for MSN and other sites that would digitally melt away, revealing a message like "Imagine what it's like to have no home." For a charity that draws most of its support from older widows, Lavoie says, reaching a broad, cyber-savvy audience is priceless.

Agencies don't need MSN to tell them they have to devote more creative talent to cyberspace. What they have found is that sparking people's interest online is as challenging as keeping them engaged when they're watching TV with a remote control.

By Diane Brady, with David Kiley, in New York

— With assistance by David Kiley

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