New media arms could be carrying little weight

Design groups, along with teams of cowboys, are riding the crest of a profitable multimedia wave. But how long will they stay buoyant – and what do they offer? Beverley Cohen reports

“Scarcely a day goes by without the advent of another company offering design for the new media age,” alleges Simone Barratt, managing director of Shandwick Interactive, a new company specialising in digital design and new media (see News, page 4).

Barratt expresses scepticism about companies which offer interactive skills, unless they are specialists. She compares the abundance of “We’ll design your Web site” advertisements to that time in the Eighties when the world and its aunt suddenly started to offer design skills.

Barratt’s statement seems to be an accurate assessment. Both the design and advertising industries have been quick off the mark in recognising a potentially lucrative new business seam in multimedia. But despite the fact that the area is fairly new, questions are being raised on the design industry’s handling of the new discipline.

“Many companies now offer multimedia services. But a lot of people are making the mistake of assuming that people with traditional design skills can do this work. Digital design is a totally different approach to print – you start with the conclusion then allow people to explore it themselves,” claims Barratt.

A lot of design groups do now have their own interactive arms; Fitch and Minale Tattersfield are two cases in point. Imagination – which was one of the first groups to offer multimedia – objects to the term “arm”, as it sees its

multimedia division as totally integrated in the company’s offer. Imagination’s stance – that its multimedia designers are specialists in their field – is mirrored by many groups which have added the discipline to their repertoire.

But are designers well-poised to capitalise on the boom in

multimedia work which they

display evident enthusiasm for?

Despite outward confidence, some groups which offer multimedia with their core offers may have already had their financial fingers burned. According to Fitch director of visual communications Simon King, “Many ad agencies, and many design groups too, have opened multimedia arms that have fallen by the wayside. There are golden eggs to be had, but this type of work is hugely labour intensive and technology driven – you need expertise and facilities behind you.”

King laments the fact that there are “a lot of designers” working in this area who have taken up the software package Photoshop and “slapped a few filters together to design a Web site”.

Regardless of the quality of work being produced, industry financiers are starting to invest in this market. Website consultancy Hive has been taken over by CCC Multimedia, Maurice Saatchi’s new media company Megalomedia has taken a 10 per cent stake in Webmedia Group and WPP has expressed interest in spending its surplus liquidity in this area.

But there was similar enthus-

iasm from the financial sector for design in the Eighties – and the rest is history. Will new media

suffer the same fate?

Chris Prior, art director at The Multimedia Corporation, is ambivalent, claiming that the

market for multimedia is not flourishing. “We’ve been floated on the stock market and our shares are fluctuating. Sales of CD-ROMS are not doing particularly well, the only area which is really expanding is Web sites.”

Yet Adrian Shaughnessy –

creative director at multimedia company Intro Design – says that clients looking for both print and interactive skills are arriving thick and fast. Only this week AKQA claimed to be the first UK new media specialist to be brought in on a global Internet strategy – in this case for London International Group, for which it had already designed the Durex Web site.

According to Shaughnessy, clients “are now seeing us as an integrated whole. At first I think they put us into separate mental boxes. They would come to us for one type of media and go elsewhere for the other. Now we’re being seen as a new media

company, and there is obviously a market for this.”

Basically, the discipline is still in its fledgling state and many clients are naive about its potential. Issues about the quality of multimedia work are being raised. “Technically, it is just a facility on a computer, but it’s started to be used incorrectly in reference to the integration of design skills,” says Shaughnessy, who prefers the term new media.

As does Matt Nicholls, general manager at Megalomedia: “Multimedia is a dirty word, everyone’s talking about it. It’s used to mean everything and ends up meaning very little. The industry needs to be more specifically defined”.

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