Most people involved in analysis or commentary of digital media issues spent the latter part of last month explaining to everyone else what the UK Thump of 2000 – as opposed to the US Crash of 2000 – meant to dotcoms, their customers, their suppliers and their staff.
For any of those who entered into cash and equity deals – and many have succumbed to the allure of being momentarily worth £60m – that weekend of 15 April must have been very scary. But at least it will make dotcom suppliers, including the design industry, think more carefully before jumping into hasty equity deals. Fortunately, it seems that most consultancies brave or foolhardy enough to enter into such pacts weren’t hit too badly, and the general consensus seems to be to tread warily when working with dotcoms on areas such as branding.
David Turner, San Francisco-based half of Turner Duckworth, advises: “If you’re considering an equity deal, hire a lawyer, study the business plan and make sure you believe strongly in the idea and the people. Otherwise, if it’s a start-up, insist on fees up front.”
Neil Svensen, managing director of Rufus Leonard, which was behind on-line brand Hyphen and on-line sub-brands for major corporations such as Lloyds TSB, Shell Chemicals and Mercedes Benz, has entered into a number of such deals, and agrees that it’s important to ensure you know what you’re getting out of any contract involving equity. “Design people traditionally are not very good business people and I’ve actually met some who have very unrealistic expectations of the amount of equity they’re likely to get in such deals, so make sure you understand what’s on the table,” he cautions. Svensen actually insists on some equity in his work for dotcoms: “We work in a way where the fee covers the actual costs of the work, and any potential profit lies in the equity.” It’s an exciting way of working that’s probably akin to playing poker, so it’s only an option for a well-established company that can afford to gamble.
Even they may not have the option much longer; as more money is ploughed into dotcoms, the offer of equity will surely disappear, as it is has in the US where “most Internet companies are awash with venture capital so don’t need to give away stock”, explains Turner.
Nucleus, which works internationally with on-line businesses, has found that only one client has questioned its fees over the past six months. “There is such a paucity of hybrid skills that fees are not an issue,” says Nucleus managing director Peter Matthews. Fee rates in France, Germany and southern Europe tend to be lower than in areas such as the UK, The Netherlands and Scandinavia.
Fee considerations are just one of the differences that need to be taken into account when branding a dotcom, as opposed to a bricks and mortar, business. Nucleus, Turner Duckworth and Rufus Leonard have learned this lesson through branding projects for both dotcoms and traditional corporations wanting to create on-line sub-brands. “Unless you are prepared to modify the way you work, you are pretty irrelevant,” says Matthews. Nucleus was one of the first traditional design groups to really move into digital media, and for the past 12 months or so has been hiring management consultants, systems architects, technologists and the like.
Turner Duckworth was responsible for the rebranding of Amazon.co.uk, Flightbookers to E-Bookers, and for the branding of on-line greetings card company Sharpcards, launching this month. Both Turner Duckworth partners agree that in its most basic sense, branding is the same whoever it’s for. “Every brand we work on now has some form of on-line presence, and the job is essentially the same: communicate the essence of the brand through a series of visual elements,” says Turner.
Svensen agrees: “Dotcom clients are not that different to other clients. Some understand the value of the brand, some don’t.” Different areas within the dotcom industry will relate to you in different ways. “Big incubators know that branding is a component part, not an add-on. They’ll do things like invite us on to their advisory panel for seed capital because they know the value of what we have to offer,” he says.
Client advisory service Global Design Register says the dotcoms’ approach to branding depends on the experience of its operators. “If the entrepreneurs are inexperienced, design consultancies are sometimes brought in to work on strategy – which some are capable of and others are not,” says GDR project manager Lisa Carter. “If they [dotcom operators] go to existing branding houses, they don’t necessarily get an informed view,” adds Nucleus’ Matthews.
It’s in the details, from things like the brief through to timescale, technological considerations and client involvement and understanding, where branding a dotcom can be very different.
Bruce Duckworth kicks off with the brief. “In the more experienced [traditional] companies brand managers are used to writing the brief and giving you lots of information, but with dotcoms we write the brief, and they’re usually grateful for it. We often find we have to explain every aspect of the role of branding down to the tiniest detail, including the design process, the artwork, the technology, why the brand should remain consistent, the value of the brand – quite often the client has to be led by the hand, which is good because it makes us review the brief, the jargon, the very way we do things. It often results in fresh solutions,” he says.
Turner adds another dimension: “Internet companies are usually growing fast, and are therefore understaffed. So they’re often forced to leave you to it and to go with your recommendation. They may never have worked with a designer before, so you have to lead the process and set expectations. It gives you greater responsibility and you often end up sorting out issues that were not in the original brief.”
Turner believes the best part of working for Internet companies lies in “entrepreneurs usually being very interested in the design of their brand. They don’t necessarily have experience, but they tend to have strong opinions and take the time to be involved in the process. Great design is always easier [if you’re] working directly for the decision-maker, and they tend to view the designer as an expert rather than a journeyman,” he says. “The further down the management responsibility chain your client is, the less likely they are to take risks and the less respect you and your work receive.”
Of course, one major downside of working with such enthusiastic workaholics in such an unreal industry, where people joke that one Internet year is equal to about three normal years, is the shortened timescale. Carter at GDR says, “Start-up companies have a perceived idea of getting their idea on-line as quickly as possible. There is a race for consultancies to come up with a solution as quickly as possible.”
“At the moment there’s a land-grab going on,” says Matthews at Nucleus, “Companies are staking out a claim in digital markets and if they don’t move quickly they don’t have a business.” Sharpcards’ Marcus Hadfield admits that Turner Duckworth was probably cursing the company over its timescale: “We gave them three weeks to come back with their initial ideas and moved pretty quickly after that, because in order to meet our launch deadlines and site-build constraints, we had to move fast.”
Turner says that this speed can present problems in execution. “Because a logo approved today can be on the Web today, there is little time to mull over work and re-evaluate it. And because the resolution of on-line images is so poor, you could get away with skipping some of the craftsmanship… not a good idea,” he warns.
Carter says the type of relationship, where consultancies don’t take enough time to fine tune the artwork, is common. “The consultancy often knows a lot more about business matters than the client,” she adds, and this can give designers a perceived autonomy.
Hadfield was, of course, also benefiting from a designer’s knowledge of the numerous technical variants applicable to on-line work; the well-documented problems around viewing things through browsers, the limitations of the Web-safe colour palette. “In some ways, it’s a step back. You create a whole series of logos to be used at different sizes, much like the old bromides in the back of brand manuals. The pixel grid is very crude. HTML type isn’t anti-aliased and colour consistency is almost impossible to achieve. On the upside, the space is dynamic and the brand can be literally animated,” says Turner. Turner and Duckworth offer a final piece of advice: make sure you keep control. “Since almost all on-line companies have the ability to construct sites in-house, a design can often be manipulated by inexperienced hands. A little drop shadow here, a different colour there, a hokey animation or the elimination of white space… it’s very hard to keep control, and a strong design can all too easily be diluted,” warns Turner.
Everyone involved with on-line brands admits that there’s a lot of fun to be had working with such enthusiastic clients, and Svensen is finding that large companies now want to emulate their spirit. “They talk about getting the dotcom mentality by putting a bunch of people in a separate building to achieve a small, nimble company that can make things happen quickly and smoothly,” he says.
It seems the only problem they have is finding the right brand consultant. “We get two to three pitch invitations a day and I have to turn them away; we just don’t have the resources,” says Svenson. It’s fertile new ground for branding groups then. So what are you waiting for?