NEW YORK: Is mankind the sole intelligent species in the universe? What is the meaning of life? What really sparks an online purchase? The Manhattan office of Publicis-owned media network Starcom claims to be on the verge of solving the last of those three eternal questions.

Although Copernicus, Einstein and Professor Stephen Hawking might have got their minds around questions one and two, only Starcom is working on the truly cosmic conundrum - that of assigning a return on investment valuation to an online ad.

Long hyped by the Internet Advertising Bureau and other vested interests as the most accountable of all advertising media, web ads purportedly offer a clear-cut, simple formula for calculating return on investment.

Or do they?

When someone clicks on an ad's 'Order' button you know that ad worked. But what about all the other ad impressions preceding that action, each guiding the customer toward the final critical click ? How to assign credit to those?

Currently, online ad servers credit a favorable action (a 'more info' click or a purchase) only to the most recent ad to which a consumer was exposed - taking no account of other ads in the chain that led to a purchasing decision.

Starcom believes it may have found a solution to that problem with a tool that monitors combinations of search and display ads and calculates the extent to which each contributes to a conversion.

And to prove that the cuter the media agency, the more orotund its jargon, Starcom has dubbed its new system a "Multiple-Attribution Protocol". Or in plain English: a system that can monitor in real time the mix of search and display ads responsible for a conversion.

As Starcom vp/media director Mike Zeman explains: "You've got to remove the search, display and website reporting silos. And you've got to throw out the myopic most-recent-exposure reporting approach."

In a non-exclusive deal Starcom's system harnesses technology from two web developers, Blackfoot and Theorem Analytics, to establish what mix creates the optimal returns.

Currently, the system optimizes between multiple types of online advertising. But in the future, envisages Starcom senior vp/managing director Jeff Marshall, it is not unrealistic to expect it will evolve to embrace offline media. Most likely IPTV or digital cable once available in compatible format.

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