Merriam-Webster Online offers eight different definitions of adland's latest buzzword - among them, "a hostile encounter between military forces".

However, Joe Plummer, chief research officer of the Advertising Research Foundation last month coined a more ad-friendly meaning: "Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context" [WAMN: 23-Mar-06].

Whatever the nuts and bolts of that definition - yet to be thrashed out - one thing is certain beyond doubt.

'Engagement' is advertising's 21st century Philosopher's Stone, sought by the world's largest marketers, their agencies and media entourages - all poised to emulate the patronage lavished on alchemists by medieval princes.

The new alchemy got off to a rousing start earlier this week at the annual conference sponsored by New York-headquartered IAG Research, with worshippers from the four corners of adland genuflecting at the altar of Engagement.

Among them was David Marans, former MindShare research chief, now evp at IAG, who assured delegates that ad effectiveness is directly related to program engagement.

Ratings, opined Marans, are not the be-all and end-all of determining a TV program's efficacy. He cited the Olympics ratings on NBC as an example.

While these were underwhelming, engagement levels were high, suggesting that ten ratings points during Olympics broadcasts might have been the engagement equivalent of 14 points during another program on another network.

A groundswell of consumer research is now under way to determine the extent and quality of engagement.

Mediamark Research, for example, announced it will begin to survey consumers on how they use media, where they are when they use it, what else they are doing at the time and how focused they are while using a particular medium.

A new telephone survey, branded MediaDay, will be conducted among US consumers aged 18-plus. The initial sample will be 8,000 strong, with 5,000 consumers surveyed each subsequent year.

Dave Poltrack, president of CBS Vision, told delegates that the network uses engagement research to help it determine its schedule lineups. He reiterated his long-held belief that it is poor practice to determine a program's pricing solely by counting its audience within age groups. "Adding program attentiveness would improve that," he said.

The clientside view is much the same. Merck director of media and metrics Mike Kleha, is an enthusiastic user of engagement research, aiming to get as close to reality as possible.

Citing upfront deals struck last year with Court TV and The Weather Channel, Kleha got rhetorical: "Do I want to reward networks for value that goes beyond the rating point?" he asked. "Absolutely."

Data sourced from AdAge (USA); additional content by WARC staff