Agency media labs

Once regarded as offering little more than a stargazing exercise, the media lab is gaining priority among agencies, says Adam Woods.

Newspapers and magazines all line up obediently in their racks every morning; major radio stations live side by side on a bit of analogue or digital spectrum. But it is not often you get to see all the available television platforms clustered together in one place.

If you do find yourself gazing upon such a set-up, it is a good bet that you are in Chiswick, West London, in a comfortably furnished meeting room belonging to media strategy and research consultancy Decipher.

"Bizarrely," says Decipher managing director Nigel Walley, with persuasive confidence, "this is the only room in the whole of the UK that has got Sky, cable, BT Vision, HomeChoice/Tiscali and a selection of Freeview on the same television. I know it is a very grandiose claim, but strangely it is true."

This is what is known as a media lab, and if you listen carefully in media-land over the coming months, you may just be able to make out the sound of rustling cables, noisy static and frustrated groans as agencies try to build their own.

Spaces that collect together tomorrow's technology were once routinely labelled "rooms of the future" or some equivalent.

But it is not until you contemplate the full range of everyday, mass-market set-top boxes and consoles up close that you realise the future is suddenly now. What's more, most people in media aren't currently getting a very good view of it.

Rhys McLachlan, MediaCom's head of broadcast futures, who is in the process of furnishing the WPP agency's Futures Room, observes: "You would be astonished how many people in the media and marketing community don't even have multichannel at home."

Few individuals are in a position to subscribe to every possible platform and it is surprisingly difficult for businesses to do so.

However, MediaCom, OMD UK Group and Universal McCann are all active in this space, while Starcom and PHD are among those also said to be investigating the concept.

Exposing staff and clients to new technology is an essential purpose of a media lab, along with platform and format research, and straightforward study.

Broadcast is the most obvious focus, but most of the new breed of labs find room for games consoles, computers and mobile devices, and some even showcase digital outdoor formats.

What is clear is that, where once a media lab might have represented an interesting star-gazing exercise, it now increasingly represents a necessity for any broadcast and/or digital specialist to keep in touch. This is why agencies are moving fast to build media labs that don't just predict the future, they also comprehensively reflect the present.

Decipher/iBurbia Studios

Remit: broadcast research, commercial use

Used by: agencies, broadcasters, brands

Set up 2003

Decipher's largest media lab doesn't look like much more than a well-appointed TV room, except that the TV unit harbours an exaggerated collection of set-top boxes - six or seven of them - and the picture on the high-definition television is repeated on a PlayStation Portable, sitting beside a Slingbox, a device that allows users to access their recorded programmes remotely, among a small cluster of rival devices.

The company has three media labs in operation, with a fourth in the works. Each one has a slightly different focus - the new one will be dedicated to games and Apple technology - but remote access allows different broadcast platforms to be routed into any room on demand.

Decipher operates its media labs, which are branded as iBurbia Studios, as a commercial facility, and it regularly welcomes media agencies and clients including Vauxhall and Tesco, as well as broadcasters such as Sky and ITV. Walley estimates the set-up cost at £5,000, plus monthly subscriptions and running costs.

At the heart of a good media lab, Walley believes, should be a recognition that it is about ideas, rather than equipment. "We try to make the kit a catalyst for education, training and research, but another part of the role of the media lab is just to be able to review stuff that is happening in the market," he says.

In this spirit, Walley gives a whistle-stop tour of the fringes of the TV universe, taking in the wonders of the Slingbox, an interesting pre-roll teaser ad running within the Anytime TV service on Sky+, some ad-funded programming lurking in the bowels of the US TiVo box and Tiscali TV's programmable music video service.

Walley recently launched an installation service for companies who want a lab of their own - the key point being that this is harder than it sounds.

"The big missing link in the other labs is cable, because it is almost impossible to get it into an office," he says. "It is very difficult to get in a consumer version of Sky, and the business versions don't have the same interactive services."

IBurbia gets around the first problem because it backs onto a residential street where cable is available, and it overcomes the second with the help of a hard-to-obtain VIP pass from Sky, a major client. IBurbia's installation and management business, likewise, cuts through these difficulties by channelling those services that are otherwise unavailable across from its own facility.

Agencies can build their own successful labs, Walley concedes, citing the example of Jean-Paul Edwards at OMD UK Group, but he warns that it takes genuine commitment to make the project a success.

"It is pretty early days for this stuff, but what you normally find with agencies is that they send some 18-year-old kid down to Dixons with a load of cash, stick all this kit in a room and then it falls over and no-one knows how to fix it," he says. "Then it all ends up in a box in the basement."

Universal McCann

Remit: testing, research, education, client work

Used by: clients, agency staff

Set up 2007/8

Universal McCann would beg to differ with Walley. As the new kid on the media lab block, the agency is preparing to launch its own room late this year or early next.

Mark Middlemas, managing partner, integration, has clear ideas of what he wants to achieve and what to avoid. "All the talk (about agency media labs) is about just having a load of kit in a room, which is fine, but what I want to do ties into our proposition, which is all about 'next thing now'," he says.

"What I wanted to do - and I took this to the board as an action plan - was create a room that won't just have pieces of kit in it, but will allow clients to deliver experiences through digital technology."

This means that alongside the usual boxes and computer technology, the room will feature, for example, touch-sensitive flooring, of the type used in shopping centres, as a digital media installation, as well as cutting-edge, mobile technology borrowed from Universal McCann client MasterCard, a leader in contactless payment solutions from its business in the Far East.

Everything in the room will be linked by a common "brain", so content can be shared between devices and technology, activated at the touch of a button. The project has taken six months, with the aim of creating a testing ground for consumer interactions, as well as a place to educate and inspire agency staff, brainstorm ideas and, of course, bring clients up to date with developing technology.

"We will be involving all the senses, something often forgotten in the world we work in," says Middlemas. "Tesco use sound and smell and we will do the same with this room. We have seen one or two media labs in other agencies and I am sure they are all very good, but it is the full sensory experience I am after."

OMD UK Group

Remit: research, education, client work

Used by: clients, agency staff

Set up 2004

In the context of the brief window in time that represents the history of the modern agency media lab, OMD UK Group's Living Room is the grandfather of the scene.

Launched three years ago in its original guise as the Living Room of the Future, it is very much the project of OMD UK Group's head of futures Jean-Paul Edwards, whose aim has always been to create a partial model of a high-tech family home, rather than a showcase of unattainable technological wonders.

"For some people, a media lab is a room full of kit for testing out stuff," says Edwards. "For others, it is an idea of a glitzy room for the ultra-wealthy person. We have made ours more like a standard living room. It has got more kit than the average living room, but it is all things that could go mass market."

At the moment, there are three zones to the room. Edwards explains: "The front is the living room, with a big TV screen and various TV services; one corner of the room is more the bedroom, with a PC, Xbox 360 and various gaming bits and pieces; the third is more of an Apple-themed home office, with iPods and a Mac Mini and the Apple screens. The thing I have to go and buy is an iPod Touch."

The room is used for "focus groups, idea sessions - any number of things", such as facilitating research projects and developing themes as tools to stimulate discussion for newcomers.

"The single biggest use, and the biggest return we get from the room, is seeing our clients here," he says.

"We did 150 Living Room of the Future presentations in the original room and we have done probably 100 Living Room presentations. It is a way of getting everybody on the same page. No one technology is important for everyone, but this helps us to decide what is important in any particular case and to focus our resources."

MediaCom

Remit: research, education, client work

Used by: clients, agency staff

Set up 2007

MediaCom's Futures Room is the product of the agency's determination to ensure its staff and its clients are not left behind by the rapid movement of technology. In fact, the name may already be out of date, according to Rhys McLachlan, head of broadcast features.

"It is more of a Now Room than a Futures Room," he says. "

"We are not there making esoteric guesses as to what is going to be the next thing; we are allowing the planners and buyers and our clients to be familiar with the kit shaping the landscape for the next few years."

Roughly six months old, the room springs from a desire to ensure agency experience of new technologies and formats keeps pace with the penetration of those developments in the real world. McLachlan is shocked at the lack of familiarity in the wider media fraternity with even the most mass-market systems.

"Sky+ has been on the market since 2001 and it is jaw-dropping that people just aren't familiar with it," he says. "It is irresponsible - we have gone front foot on it and said: 'You must be familiar with this'."

In hardware terms, MediaCom's Futures Room boasts an internal IPTV service, Sky+ in high definition, a Sony Vaio media centre, an Apple TV and decoder, a Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, an Archos portable media player, the new iPhone and other mobile devices, plus various outdoor digital formats and a Slingbox coming from the New York office, to pick up US TV.

Virgin cable hasn't been easy to come by, says McLachlan, but it is now on order.

"It is very much oriented to demonstrate to clients that TV is a much richer, more embracing platform than simply the TV box itself, and these are ways in which people are picking up video content," he says.

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