By Steve McClellan

As marketers struggle to understand emerging media and mobile video devices, agencies are working to help them incorporate those technologies into their media plans. This has lead some shops to try surrounding both staff and clients with those devices in a bid to breed familiarity.

Among the latest examples: IPG Media launched its Emerging Media Lab, which uses part of a floor of its Los Angeles offices to house all the latest consumer gadgets. Visitors will find the latest generation video game consoles, high-definition TV systems and wireless video display panels that can be networked to every electronic device imaginable and carried from room to room in a home or office.

Other agencies are taking different approaches. Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest Group has turned its entire agency into a media lab of sorts. Late last year the shop handed every U.S. employee a technology budget, varying in size according to rank and specialty, to buy new media devices for their own use and, by gaining familiarity with them, to better plan for clients.

Publicis Groupe is also poised to announce within the next two weeks a major new digital media venture. The agency won’t disclose details, but sources confirm that Nick Pahade, recently hired away from WPP, where he was CEO of Beyond Interactive, will have a leading day-to-day operational role.

And Omnicom’s OMD has persuaded about a dozen key clients to invest $10 million in a series of research projects that will analyze how consumers interact with ad messages in media such as video-on-demand, DVRs and mobile wireless technologies in tests throughout the coming year. Among the participating Omnicom clients are Bank of America, Lowe’s, Discovery Channel, McDonald’s, Visa, Anheuser-Busch, Clorox, FedEx and General Electric. They are funding specific research projects that will examine consumption habits and ad applications for new media platforms, said Page Thompson, CEO of OMD U.S.

Collectively, ad executives said, these efforts and others demonstrate that emerging media have become the mainstream, and agencies must adapt.

Mark Rosenthal, CEO of IPG Media, said the company’s new media lab in L.A. is the first of three different labs it may open. One would be a similar facility in New York, and another would focus on emerging media in automobiles that could be launched in Detroit or New York.

“Ideally, this will become a place where we will take a look at prototype stuff long before it’s available to consumers so we can plan and predict how we engage with consumers through media five or six years from now,” said Rosenthal. “With clients like Sony, Microsoft, Intel, AOL and Computer Associates, you are really playing with ideas about new media all the time. The lab is a great place to have a dialog with clients about marketing plans and solutions in a live environment.”

But Ineterpublic Group wasn’t the first holding company to set up a new media lab.

Mike Bologna, director of emerging communications at WPP’s Mediaedge:cia, said the agency set up its Emerging Communications studio in July 2003. “It’s been a great resource for helping clients understand the evolving digital landscape,” said Bologna. “Now the focus is on applications from a media perspective: what campaigns have worked on what platforms, and why.”

Starcom MediaVest Group followed with its own lab about six months later, said Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer at Publicis Groupe Media and president, SMG Next, a unit formed two years ago to explore new media opportunities for clients.

“We’ve moved beyond the lab,” said Tobaccowala. “We’re surrounded by technology that is changing the media and marketing landscape, and the practitioners should live that way,” he said, explaining the idea behind Starcom’s employee technology allowance.

“Basically, we’ve turned the entire company into one huge lab,” said Chris Boothe, evp, group client leader of Starcom USA, who implemented the tech allowance program. “All employees got the tech allowance to activate around the specific businesses and consumers that they’re working with, and to further their knowledge and application with that type of technology.”

But even with all this experimentation, much more specific data must be gathered to fully understand the different platforms, said OMD’s Thompson. “Advertisers think they know HDTV. But there is no empirical data about the impact of HDTV commercial versus non-HDTV commercials. Or whether viewers [for] HDTV programming watch more or less commercials,” and how viewing patterns differ compared to standard TV, he said. “If you believe the digital world is here to stay, and it is, you need to do something about it.”