INdustry Profile: BrightLine's Ad-Centric Alchemy

Interactive TV advertising has been welling and swelling quite a bit these days, but for most industry observers, it's still kinda nascent. It's certainly not yet mainstream and we don't really have ITV ads as a standard part of advertising campaigns in the same way that online ads, for example, now play a role.

It's not that the TV industry hasn't been trying. There's actually quite a lot of interactive TV capacity in the US TV market. DirecTV, with nearly 20 million subscribers, runs a pretty robust Java-based ITV system from NDS. Dish, with around 14 million TV households, has a solid ITV platform from OpenTV. Cablevision is running ActiveVideo. Time Warner and Comcast have local forms of EBIF for their local avails and Canoe-EBIF for national avails. All told, service provider-enabled ITV probably reaches 60 million TV households in the US.    

So why isn't it now mainstream?

Well, suppose you're the marketing chief at Toyota and you're about to spend a gazillion dollars introducing the new Prius family of cars (which are cool). You think, "Hey, wouldn't it be great to have an interactive TV ad that links to a mini-site where consumers could spend a few minutes playing with the different configurations of my new cars." (Disclaimer: I'm not talking with Toyota...promise.)

This is what I call app-centric thinking and I think it's pretty common. The trouble with today's ITV network is that app-centric thinking doesn't work very well. In the context of the set of platforms above, if the ad Toyota wants to run is a national ad spot, then DirecTV, Dish and the local systems from Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision can't play because their ITV platforms only work on "local" ad spots which are the ad inventory that the operators sell and control. Canoe-EBIF can be used for national ad spots in about 25 million cable TV households, but Canoe-EBIF can't play because it can't link to a mini-site.    

Frustration. ADHD-plagued marketing chief shifts focus to online marketing.

This is a long preamble to the BrightLine profile, but it serves a purpose. BrightLine, you see, can solve the marketing chief's problem.

The root, it turns out, might be called "ad-centric" thinking. As CEO Jacqueline Corbelli and president Michael Finn explained, they take a different approach by comparison to most other proponents of ITV advertising or, as they call it (more appropriately given the approach), Advanced TV Advertising.

The key to BrightLine's success is their ability to intelligently map the capabilities of each system to the advertiser's objective. They've managed to wiggle their way into a position where they have an opportunity to review the strategy brief for a given campaign. They then run this through a system they've built where they input the strategy and the audience target, and the system kicks out a list of tactics for each platform. Importantly, they're not bound to technology. If a national ad spot can't have an interactive link, they use a text-based instruction (e.g. "Tune to Channel 191 to play the Prius Family game") to drive the audience to the facet of the system that can deliver the desired user experience. With over 280 campaigns under their belt, and a growing list of customers, they know what is doable, what it will cost, what the range of responses is likely to be, and, all importantly, how it will be measured.  

In effect, they changed the question. Rather than asking, "What app might you build to enhance your ad?," instead they ask, "What is your advertising objective?"

Their practical answer to a diversity of tools and instruments was to assemble a collection of tactics where each, individually, is designed to achieve the advertiser's objective with the audience, but without any real concern for the underlying similarities of the tactics. If the resulting quilt of applications covers the market and gets results, their customers' goals have been met.   

Presently, BrightLine claims that they are able to run advanced advertising applications on platforms that reach 90 million TV households, or about 82% of US TV households. I don't have the full list of their platform partners, but it clearly includes the major TV service provider platforms, as well as Xbox and probably other connected devices.

Their applications on each of these platforms can be technically quite simple. For example, this video shows an example of an ad for Sony PSP with an onscreen text instruction to tune to channel 116.  

Don't need no stinking interactive overlay buttons!   

Fact is, that's a really good way to get around a technical limitation of a given system (perhaps the service provider can't run interactivity on a national ad spot, per above), and it's the sort of very practical approach that BrightLine takes to addressing the advertising objectives of their customers.

And, yes, there are in fact buttons. You'll also see an interactive entry point on the menu displayed when the DVR pause button is played. Once the consumer tunes to or links to the interactive channel, an application will launch (very probably because they are able to launch a bound interactive app from that channel slot).

Towards the end of our discussion, we ventured into one of my favorite topics: automatic content recognition (ACR) in both forms--the two-screen approach using audio recognition in partnership with companies like Shazam, Zeitera or IntoNow; and the prospective one-screen approach that we anticipate will be available on smart TV's starting in 2012.

Surprisingly, neither of the new creative outlets has much purchase at BrightLine--at least not yet. Michael Finn pointed out that until the new platforms can make meaningful contributions to their results, they don't really matter. They can always add them to the system when they get big.    

For my part, I think they should re-examine that position. Yahoo! TV is now running on something like 7-8 million TV sets, and it seems like the creative potential and market reach of smartphones and tablets is already more than big enough to warrant BrightLine's attention.   

Other than that curious exposed flank, BrightLine is doing great stuff and growing rapidly. They raised $30 million earlier this year and I'll bet they get into the ACR business before too long. In the meantime, BrightLine is very definitely one to watch as the groundswell under advanced TV advertising continues to build.



Michael is the president and CEO of MediaTech Strategies, a consulting company that helps investors and operating companies develop and capitalize on emerging media technologies.   He has over 18 years' experience in the media technology business, including previous CEO roles at Ucentric Systems, where he pioneered the multiroom DVR category and PhyFlex Networks, where he developed a new access network solution for cable.  Michael previously held senior executive positions with OpenTV, ICTV (now ActiveVideo Networks), Motorola and Playboy TV.  Through his consulting practice, he has provided services to more than 50 companies of all types, stages and size.