Media: Watch out Sonic, the admen are coming: Maggie Brown meets the founder of an advertising agency that is putting commercials into computer games

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The Independent Online
DANIEL M BOBROFF, 29, has founded a rapidly growing media business based on a simple insight. An avid player of computer games, he wondered why they did not carry advertising.

He spotted the gap five years ago while watching fooball on television with a group of friends. They started playing Kick Off, a computer football game.

He suddenly thought, why are there no commercials on it?

At the time, Mr Bobroff, a graduate of Manchester University, was employed as a media planner at the advertising agency Young & Rubicam, where he was pondering how to adapt old technology (milk bottles) for ad campaigns.

In the best entrepreneurial tradition, he set up MicroTime Media in his front room with a pounds 2,000 unofficial overdraft from Lloyds Bank. 'I sold all my meagre assets, lived on a shoestring and created the world's first rate card (a list of tariffs) for interactive advertising.'

To date, the agency has handled 80 clients. Mr Bobroff's first success was to persuade Coca-Cola to pay to advertise in the official video game of the Barcelona Olympics. Another coup was attracting Duckhams QXR motor oil to the game Formula One Grand Prix. 'They wanted to reach new drivers, young men,' he says.

When Mr Bobroff launched his agency, 'the advertising industry was in recession, the economy was down. Every quarter I went to for support, including venture capitalists, turned me down.'

Yet the Sega-Nintendo video- game boom was just beginning, and in spite of the negative reactions he encountered, he knew he was on to a winner. 'The decision to make it happen was not about money. I was trying to crystallise an idea.'

Mr Bobroff says he was also inspired by MTV, the US-owned satellite pop channel that has spawned its own style of rapid-fire advertising, very different in pace and look from other commercials.

But he knew that bringing advertisers and consumer goods into games needed careful handling. 'You have to communicate a commercial message within a game. We were brokering a concept. We had to add value to the experience of playing.' Otherwise, he says, children and teenagers playing the game would find it was boring and would switch off. 'We had to create a win, win, win, triangle.'

Traditional advertising relies on handing down short, sharp messages lasting perhaps 30 seconds, he says. But teenagers will play a computer game for about 30 to 40 hours before they get bored with it. They are not a captive audience but rather 'a captivated audience'.

'We see ourselves as the early film-makers, using graphic artists, animators. The creative skills we need are entirely new,' he says.

The agency is employing a scriptwriter to handle its first interactive script for a CD-rom game. This is a highly complex piece of writing, requiring a high degree of logic and consistency.

In another recent example, involving the game Fifa International Soccer, the agency introduced advertising hoardings promoting Adidas Predator boots around the fantasy pitch. At one point the 5player can opt for his or her team to play in the new boots, which promise a 20 per cent increase in performance.

To the outsider, Mr Bobroff may seem an interloper, trying to infiltrate commercial messages into computer games and thus the minds of gullible children who spend hours playing them. He counters by saying that there is a role for commercialism in any new media, and that video-game advertising offers an additional stream of revenue that could help 5to reduce the high prices of some games, which he deplores. He points to a game the agency designed around the Quavers snack character Colin Curly, which retails at a modest pounds 19.99. The approach combines the old advertising strategies of product placement and sponsorship. Another game designed by the agency, Super James Pond, uses Penguin biscuits as a platform for the character to progress along (aimed at five- to 14-year-olds).

'We have always felt, as market 5leader, that we have to take a prominent stance: there are no cigarette brands or alcohol advertising in the games.

We feel there should be light-handed regulation applied to this medium and that it is important to see this new industry developed along European lines,' Mr Bobroff says. At the start of the year, his agency agreed a joint statement with the Advertising Standards Authority, to abide by its code of being 'legal, honest, decent and truthful'.

Advertisers pay a rate based on 5the reach of games, how many are sold and played: Carrick James, the market research company, carries out random sampling of 50 households from a panel of 2,000 five- to 19-year-olds.

The large agencies are now on the trail of the new medium. Moray McLennan, joint managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi's London office, has just announced that he is setting up a task force of senior executives across Europe to examine the interactive future, and how to adjust advertising to its scope.

5 He says computer games, CD- rom, the Internet, interactive cable-television games and home shopping are all part of the change and none has been particularly penetrated by advertisers within Europe. The group, Mr McLennan says, must keep up with developments and experiment with clients so that they are 'in the know'.

'TV won't disappear, but if you know the world is going to be turned upside down, you need to prepare.'

(Photograph omitted)