Omnicom Takes Stake in Second Life Shop

NEW YORK Omnicom Group said it has made an investment in Millions of Us, a San Francisco-based shop that specializes in building destinations in virtual environments like Second Life.

Millions of Us, founded in May 2006, has built presences in Second Life for brands like 20th Century Fox, Toyota and Pontiac. In the spring, it worked with new marketing agency Crayon to build Virtual Thirst, a Second Life program that challenged users to create a virtual Coke vending machine. Millions of Us is building the virtual vending machine selected from submissions.

The size of the investment and minority stake Omnicom will hold in the company were not disclosed.

The shop is one of several that has emerged in the past 18 months to serve brands that want to experiment in so-called “metaverses” like Second Life. Others include The Electric Sheep Company, Rivers Run Red and Infinite Vision Media. Former executives at Linden Lab, the company that runs Second Life, founded Millions of Us.

“We are entering an era known as the ‘Avatar Age’ in which people connect face to face online,” Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us, said in a statement. “Because people today trust the recommendations of friends much more than advertising, companies can now seize the opportunity to support online communities and connect more deeply with their customers through social networks rather than through traditional online advertising.”

“The experience is only to get better,” said Jonathan Nelson, chairman of Organic and Omnicom digital strategist. “We’re still in the first generation of virtual worlds. It is another interface to have a social media experience. Some people will look at the world through their avatars.”

After an initial spate of enthusiasm for virtual worlds, some have questioned whether marketers are wasting their money there. While Second Life has 10 million registered users, less than 500,000 have logged on in the past week, according to stats on the Second Life Web site.

Yet some remain bullish on the ultimate impact of virtual worlds. Gartner anticipates 80 percent of Internet users will have an avatar in a virtual world within five years.

IBM, an early proponent of virtual worlds for collaboration, struck a deal earlier this week with Linden Lab to develop technologies that allow users to seamlessly move between virtual environments in much the same way as they hop from Web site to Web site.

The investment is a rare case of Omnicom making a bet on an emerging media company. Rivals like WPP Group have made several investments in emerging media. Interpublic Group took stakes in Facebook and local TV digital ad platform Spot Runner.