IT’s a blast

Keeping up with the crowd can seem a daunting prospect where IT is concerned. Jane Lewis explains the pitfalls of new media from the client’s point of view

New media has virtually exploded out of designers’ screens during the past three years. Suddenly everyone’s talking webs, intranets and Javanese, while those left behind are very confused indeed. For clients attempting to commission new media design projects the challenge can be just a little daunting.

In a short space of time the market has grown to accommodate an estimated 2000 companies offering web development or interactive media services. “There are loads of cowboys out there,” claims Harmen Rijks, head of sales and marketing at Rufus Leonard. “When clients are looking, it’s crucial they find a consultancy that understands design and IT, and has been working on such projects for some time.”

However baffled clients may seem, they are certainly wising up compared to the initial knee-jerk reactions of leaving it up to internal IT departments to come up with solutions. That scenario is now shifting with marketing departments taking the initiative.

The market is growing more sophisticated and clients are realising they need to take on consultants who have all-round expertise combining design and strategic thinking with technical and programming skills while designers are finding themselves part of multidisciplinary teams rather than in the driving seat. “Our attitude to clients has always been just because Doris in accounts has a video camera it doesn’t mean you ask her to shoot a TV commercial,” ventures Steve Andrews, business development director at new media agency Smartnet.

But while the market matures clients are still scratching their heads about what new media can do for them. “They think they should have a website but don’t know why or what they want it to do,” states Julian Wright, director of Blueberry New Media. The challenge is coming up with a business justification for the not insignificant sums of money which companies are investing in new media ventures.

According to Peter Matthews, managing director of Nucleus whose new media division is the fastest growing side of the consultancy, this year has witnessed “third generation” Internet sites. “Some clients have been through a very steep learning curve, others are still in the process,” he says.

Three years ago, companies jumped on to the net with sites developed by IT departments which were “far from acceptable in design terms”, now clients are making sure they have a “proper business case” for their sites, Matthews claims.

“They are being developed as proper communications tools. The approach is much more considered, marketing departments are working with technical teams and consultancies are being vetted more thoroughly,” he adds. Many clients are moving one step further and looking at intranets (see Glossary, page 18) and other applications of new media technology. But, he argues, the market is still very fragmented, with few consultancies offering a genuine combination of the skills required to meet the demands of a new media project.

What clients want

Because the area is such a new and changing one, clients need a relationship they can trust. They want their hands held; they want reassuring that what they are doing is adding value to their business. “The problem is that the level of knowledge within client companies is so low that there’s a huge learning curve and you have to lead them by the hand. It’s like them commissioning a TV commercial without having watched TV,” claims Wright.

Clients now want more than just a “brochure-ware” approach to web development – with sites providing more than just on-line product information or the latest press release.

“You want a group of people you can work with rather than a client/servant relationship. It should be based on two players throwing stuff backward and forward – you have to work pretty closely together,” states Lucien King of video and computer games company BMG Interactive.

“Rather than a design agency per se we wanted some experience in site development,” stresses Andrew Mackay, UK marketing manager at Flymo, which launched a website last month. “We also wanted a consultancy which fully understood our design ethos. Flymo has core brand properties and we wanted an agency that went beyond the design but actually understood Flymo and what we wanted to communicate with the site.”

Maryam Bazargan, product manager at Gemstar Europe, which specialises in marketing ©

© consumer electronics products, says it’s important to take a long-term view at the outset. “You have to make sure the consultants you use do have the capability, and think about the future of your site – what do you want to do with it in a year’s time? Does the consultancy have the capability or will it go out of business?”

Clients are realising they have to select consultants who will provide the right balance of skills and team approach required for a new media project, where designers have to work alongside a whole host of other experts ranging from programmers and animators to copywriters. They may be put off if a design group is over pushy about the design element.

“We wanted someone who had the technological expertise and not just the design capability, because we’ll be building on the site. We also didn’t want too wacky a site because of the nature of our business. We’re not a fashion company,” comments Bazargan.

Bazargan has worked with new media groups in the past and claims Blueberry’s work for the Video Plus site ran far more smoothly than an earlier CD-ROM project by an unnamed agency. “There are a lot of people who wouldn’t have been able to offer us what we’ve managed to get with Blueberry,” she adds.

Carol Hernandez, marketing coordinator of whisky exporter J&B, points out: “There are lots of new media agencies but it is difficult to ascertain where their strengths lie, ie were they an existing design/promotions/ advertising agency which is branching out into this media because it feels it will lose out or miss the boat, or were they specifically created with new media in mind, with experts in the relevant fields.”

Paper manufacturer Modo Merchants chose Nucleus because “we knew them better and knew it would be faster track”, recalls marketing director Tim Forster. “Design is one of our key market segments and we set high standards in the way we use our corporate identity and quality of graphics.”

Nucleus worked with Modo to create an interactive version of the Modo Paper Selector which is being updated by the consultancy. Modo is now looking to develop the CD-ROM into a website, and will put Nucleus on the list of candidates.

“I get calls most weeks from companies wanting to design a site for us. From a technical point of view I assume for them to approach me they must know what they’re talking about. But it’s so important whoever takes the job on knows what Modo wants to achieve from it – it’s not design for design’s sake. We need to work with someone who can further define what we can achieve. The last thing we want is to launch a site people only look at once.”

One clear message is that clients like to feel secure in their choice of consultants because the area is such a new one which is changing © © all the time and is still seen as a bit of a risk.

Publishing house Condé Nast’s site was designed and produced by Smartnet – an outfit which began life in-house but is now stand-alone. Nancy Cruickshank, Condé Nast commercial director, explains it was an easy choice to use Smartnet because of its background. Smartnet now works in partnership with Condé Nast on sites for other clients. “They are our preferred partner because they have such a large resource in design and technology and extremely high standards of design. We go by track record – it’s trial and error really,” says Cruickshank.

In a similar spin-off, Mahony Associates was chosen by BT’s global department to work on an interactive travelling exhibition (see case study opposite).

Room for improvement

Perhaps because the area is still maturing and clients aren’t over confident yet, many prefer a one-to-one relationship rather than taking on board a whole team.

“Agencies I work with don’t have a traditional agency structure and there’s no account manager running around and interfacing between you. I haven’t been that impressed with some of the bigger consultancies I’ve seen. And the highly trendy new media agencies are fine but are not good for the corporate work we do. It’s a real shame that young designers coming out of college think corporate and business to business work is boring. In some ways it’s more fertile because you can really push the boundaries in what you’re doing,” comments BT’s Davies.

Andrew Mackay is concerned that there is such a “mixed batch” of agencies out there waiting to pounce. “We’ve been peppered with agencies which specialise in site development, but there’s quite a spectrum in terms of design capability. You can have a presence on the web quickly and cheaply but frankly if you can’t do it properly, don’t do it at all,” he states.

Philip Rambow, who manages the sports division of licensed merchandising group Niceman, is also perplexed about the variation in consultancies. “People come across as either being too large or too small. The big ones have a ‘we’re doing you a favour’ attitude which is terrible for a service industry. The smaller companies over-emphasise the fact that they can do you a deal. Medium-sized companies with a good track record are a winning combination,” he claims.

Interestingly, CD-ROM projects seem to be more fraught than websites. “The CD-ROM worked out to be much more difficult than the website. It took longer and there wasn’t the same communication. The agency had underestimated the amount of work and tried to add more to their charges. Costs have to be broken down as much as possible rather than saying the final price is this,” stresses Bazargan.

Modo’s venture into CD-ROM proved “20 times more complicated than we thought it was going to be. It seemed to take forever and if we did it again we’d probably change the way we documented the project,” admits Tim Forster.

Bazargan advises that text for any new media project is as perfect as possible. Last minute changes may be inevitable, but she warns: “It’s very important that you submit the final version because it’s difficult to go through and change once it’s up and running.”

But many sites are being developed so that clients can easily make updates – after all, the whole point about new media is to avoid static information.

“Clients have to put a lot of the ideas in – that’s as it should be, but it seems designers may be reluctant to waste intellectual energy. We have to push and come up with the inspiration,” claims BMG Interactive’s Lucien King.

Fees

New media does not come cheap. But as ever clients are careful buyers and don’t want to feel they are paying over the odds, particularly for something they are not sure will be commercially successful. There are reports that the Burton Group invested 1m on its website, and many suggest blue chip companies shouldn’t even consider a site for less than 100 000. But when it comes to consultancy fees, that’s another matter.

“The market is being exploited to a degree by a number of people. Some of the quotes we’ve seen that have gone into our clients are outrageous at either end of the scale,” suggests Steve Andrews. “Fees are very variable from the traditional design groups who charge a normal fee to two guys in a garage who will charge a buck or two,” agrees Karen Mahony.

“It often depends what disciplines agencies are coming from,” says Davies. “Those from a design background will put a higher premium on creative direction whereas others who are more new media don’t rate design as highly.”

“It always makes me nervous to think we’re paying for something that a smaller company will do just as well but for less,” states Rambow.

“If you want a presence as a big brand you need to invest,” declares Mackay.

Future trends

The new media market is still evolving, and as with any kind of technology it is changing at a very fast rate. Designers who have moved into the arena are crossing the line into the “anorak” world of programming; courses are springing up which straddle both, and the divide is starting to close.

Even so, many new media companies are finding it hard to recruit good staff, and wages in this area are more buoyant than other design disciplines.

“We’re having a problem finding and recruiting people who have a crossover between creative and technical skills. Those sort of skills aren’t really compatible,” claims Philip Dyer, web development manager at Zoo Internet.

Jonathan Morris, recruitment consultant, has a sobering prediction: “There are more designers than there is demand. It’s dynamic and exciting but probably perceived to be bigger than it really is. There’s a lot of consolidation on the design side. Clients are realising they want more than just design – they want consultancy, direction and marketing and designers are finding it harder to compete.”

While some of the smaller or less successful agencies will fall by the wayside, there is also the emergence of supergroups like Online Magic, which has the backing of ad agency BMP DDB and has formed an alliance with New York group Agency.com.

But Angus Robertson, managing director of Westworld Interactive, does not expect a shakeup within the new media market yet. “At the moment the market is so vast and the opportunities so wide that it will probably support a great number of entrants.”

“People are still getting to grips with it. The whole high street is going to change as people find new ways of presenting products and services in an interactive environment.”

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