Tip-toeing Towards A Multi-Screen Future

I was asked to chair a session at the excellent Future of TV Advertising Forum earlier this week. It was held at the Kensington Roof Gardens, scene of quite a few debauched nights out in the early 1990s, and it was strange to be there when sober, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless.

Not surprisingly, a huge chunk of the conference was devoted to multi-screening; my session – ‘Advertising in a Multi-screen World’ – was just one of several. I can understand the enthusiasm – multi-screening offers real opportunities for advertisers – but I was slightly disappointed by how slowly they are moving to exploit it. Although there have been some valiant attempts to provide a more strategic approach to getting these screens to integrate and talk to each other, most examples on show appeared to be short-term,  tactical and a little bit gimmicky.

I can understand the advertiser caution; as Richard Brooke of Unlilever stated, multi-screening is still very much a minority activity and it cannot be allowed to compromise the communications to the passive, non-tweeting, single-screen audience. It was noted that the much-lauded Coca Cola Superbowl commercial app achieved just a 0.3% response rate (300,000 users out of a 111 million audience).

I sympathise with the point of view, but I still find it difficult to understand why more advertisers haven’t at least tried to experiment with full-integrated multi-screen campaigns, given the potential it offers and the relative ease of implementation.

The real opportunity around multi-screening is that it leaves the big screen to do what it does best and directs all of the interactivity and personalisation of the experience to the second screen. This merging of personal and shared content across different screens reduces the risk of alienating the shared audience quite dramatically.  It is possible to produce solutions across screens without significantly affecting what is on the main TV screen at all. Meanwhile, synchronisation of content (as demonstrated by the ITV/Shazam partnership) is already beginning to attract revenues, through brands such as Sony and Rimmel, but there is still a question of exactly how advertisers can exploit this opportunity to best effect?

It was interesting that in one session devoted to the advertising opportunities, a good 80% of the discussion was based on what broadcasters were doing around programme content. For example, TV sports producer IMG have to include 9 pages of second screen applications in their pitch proposals (from a few lines just a couple of years ago). Of course, broadcasters have an inbuilt advantage in knowing what is coming up, a daunting defence against  3rd party competition. Even so it is good to see them leading the way, but TV advertisers need to take the opportunity to experiment while the market is still developing. After all, it is nearly six years since the Thinkbox/IAB study demonstrated how quickly TV viewers were adopting multi-screening around their TV viewing on a regular basis, and yet the pace of change since then has been anything but revolutionary.

I sometimes think the market’s slow speed of response to the multi-screening opportunity is down to the fact that it is very much a consumer-led phenomenon, taking the market by surprise. In that sense, it reminds me of text messaging, invisible to us oldies even as it flourished in the playground and on the school bus. Maybe there’s a little of the same ‘not invented here’ disdain about multi-screening.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and, if the rest of the conference was anything to go by, some genuine innovation emerging. But rising connected TV , smartphone and tablet penetration  levels mean this market is evolving faster than the industry can keep up with at the moment. By the time of the 5th Future TV Advertising Forum next year, I hope the gap has considerably narrowed. To do that, the media industry must play its part in the creation of engaging brand content moving across and between screens, totally appropriate to its audience and media mindset, and keeping a clear distinction between the public and private spaces those screens represent.


p.s. despite excellent briefing from Justin Lebbon, the conference organiser, most of the panels didn’t just overlap, they merged completely. I say that as one of the culprits. But when does mobile not become multi-screen or connected TV become divorced from pay TV? Maybe we should stop segmenting conferences based on technology (mobile, multi-screen, connected vs Smart TVs etc.) and focus more on consumer mindsets (play, information, sharing, buying). Just a thought…