Plain English, all-round expertise and value for money are on clients’ wish lists, says Jane Lewis.

The market

Although clients are becoming more knowledgeable about what multimedia is and how it might benefit their business, there is still confusion and suspicion when commissioning multimedia services, because the sector is so fast moving and precarious. “A lot of organisations are suffering from internal problems – they don’t know what the hell their on-line strategy is or how they’re going to use it,” says Malcolm Garrett, design director at AMX Studios.

“Some clients are still confused about whether multimedia fits within the IT or communications departments. But to generate the best value from multimedia they’ve got to see how it fits in and integrates with other communications activities,” stresses Gary Chapman, business partner at C2. Clients are faced with such a variety of groups claiming to be experts – from large telecoms companies to two “anoraks” working from their living room – that they are quite rightly cautious about who to use.

But demand for multimedia skills is continuing to expand almost as fast as the technology is changing, and more design groups are setting up their own in-house multimedia departments as clients look for integrated solutions.

“Clients are talking about multimedia much more seriously now. Budgets are getting better and they often think about their websites before thinking about brochures or videos,” claims Darryl Feldman, creative director at Clarity.

What clients want

For multimedia projects clients still want their hands held. Most of them may know what a website is, but they are still not sure how to get the most out of the Net for their business. Many are frightened of the jargon and some clients are launching sites for the first time.

“Pretty much all our clients are interested in how they can maximise their sales via e-commerce sites,” says Garrett, who points out the main issues are having the design and technical skills to create a “shop window” on the Net from a database environment along with security and clearance.

Therefore, they need to have confidence in the specialists they bring in and feel assured that the consultancy they choose has a sound trading background. And while some prefer to use groups which have a multimedia focus, other clients would rather work with design groups who can integrate multimedia work into a larger communications project.

Clients also expect consultancies to provide the right mix of design, marketing and technical skills required for multimedia work.

Meanwhile, multimedia rosters are becoming more common, as are long-term relationships where consultancies are kept on board to maintain and review sites.

Railtrack appointed Clarity in October 1996 to work on its website, and has continued to work with the consultancy, which is now redesigning the site. “When we met Clarity it was much further ahead than anyone else and had better ideas about how Railtrack worked and what we could get out of the Net,” says Louise Muller, corporate communications executive at Railtrack.

“It’s very proactive on strategy and keeps an eye on what’s going on in the market, then approaches us with ideas. It’s strong on design as well.”

For Caroline Brock, head of corporate affairs at the Public Health Laboratory, it was important to have a consultancy which would not blind her with technical jargon, but had the right mix of technical, design and marketing skills. “Redhouse Lane’s name came up because someone had seen other sites it had done. We asked for some quotes from two other groups, but Redhouse was the preferred one. I wasn’t familiar with multimedia and Redhouse was very good and spoke in plain English. It was quick in coming up with a design and very responsive to what we wanted,” says Brock.

Bang Creative was appointed to design a site for Thomson Entertainment, a manufacturer of simulators, following work the consultancy had done on the company’s identity. “We wanted to maintain the identity and brand values within the website,” says a Thomson spokesman.

“Bang sets the whole site up and we review it with them once a quarter to see how we can update it. We were looking for a consultancy which could appreciate what the site could do for us and we gave Bang pretty much an open book to work within the budget,” he continues.

“You need an understanding on both sides. One of the reasons we chose Bang was because it understood what we needed and it was prepared to work within the limitations we set,” he adds.

Gordon Butler is responsible for putting together BT’s multimedia roster. “We try to push our multimedia consultancies and lecture them about what we feel should be happening. It’s not difficult to find people, but it’s difficult to find good people,” he comments.

“The most difficult thing is the sifting process. When we did our roster last year we looked at more than 100 consultancies and it took about three months to complete. Our three main criteria were: did we like their work and feel it was appropriate to what we were looking for; had the consultancy worked for large companies before; what was its track record like and was it likely to stay in business. Then we used our own professional judgment about creativity. What we’re looking for is creativity we can afford and technical understanding rather than technical skills which we have in-house,” says Butler.

For Louise Devereux, marketing development manager at Wiggins Teape, the debate was whether to use a specialist group or full-blown consultancy to work on a website for a specific marketing initiative. The decision to use Bang was taken because it had worked on other elements of the campaign and could provide an “integrated” approach.

“We were looking for creativity, innovation and a consultancy we could feel comfortable with,” says Carol Morrison, communications specialist at ICI Polyurethanes. C2 was commissioned because the consultancy had worked on other projects for ICI.

“It was important to us that we already had a good relationship with C2 and it had good contacts for the virtual reality element of the project. Also, clients always like to have a consultancy that makes it feel it is number one,” she adds.

Room for improvement

“We’ve noticed a lot of ad agencies and print designers are setting up multimedia departments. But to be honest I’d be a bit worried about using people who weren’t specialists,” claims Muller at Railtrack. “The market’s got to that stage now where we’d rather go with a specialist group than a consultancy which tacks on a few people and says ‘we’re on-line now’.”

Graham Whitehead, communications manger at Thomson Entertainment, complains that in the past he has found groups can run away with their ideas and lose sight of the end user. “Sometimes you have to rein people’s creativity in to be more realistic about the market you’re trying to reach. We’re selling a product, not aspirations,” he comments.

“What was disappointing was that groups tended to be quite conservative and assumed we just wanted a corporate approach,” claims Butler. “There’s also an incredible amount of techno fear – the technical people do the creative work because they understand the technical side, whereas a client wants the creative people to do it. We’d rather people experimented and made mistakes. It’s only by pushing the boundaries that you can exploit what is possible. Creativity is being stifled and we see a lot of the same thing. The ones which are more experimental are more successful.”

Morrison believes groups should be thinking globally and should make sure they have an understanding of other cultural markets. “We are a global business and having contacts in various parts of the world is of growing importance and a definite asset. Groups need contacts as well as an understanding – even down to what type of English should be used,” he says.

Fees

For a sector which is so new, it is not surprising that there are still significant variations in fees and budgets. But what riles Garrett at AMX Studios is the attitude of clients to pitching. “The hardest thing we face is clients putting together huge pitch lists. They often ask for full creative pitches from between six to ten groups. They’re asking for a lot of value up front and it makes it difficult for the whole industry,” he says.

“The problem with pitches is it can boil down to pretty websites rather than ones which are effective,” says Bang Creative new media head Andy Hall. “It can be hard to work out what to charge as we often don’t know what the budget is, and clients often have ideas which aren’t achievable within the budgets they have set.”

“One of our key criteria is value for money. If you’re looking for a big strategic job you have to pay the fees,” says Butler at BT.

Devereux found when she was looking at consultancies’ quotes that the fees for design and implementation were fairly consistent, while charges “varied enormously” for maintenance. “One group quoted quite a bit for maintenance and when I questioned it, it said it could come down on the price. If you’ve not done a website before it’s difficult to know what sort of maintenance costs might be involved.”

Future trends

There’s no doubt demand for multimedia skills will continue to grow. The arrival of digital TV and growth of e-commerce will fuel a buoyant market. But the sector is still a developing one, making it difficult for fledgling businesses to succeed. “It’s probably the worst time to set up a multimedia group because a lot of clients got burnt by using groups which have gone bust and have lost assets,” says Feldman at Clarity.

More mergers and acquisitions are likely, both from communications groups swallowing up specialist consultancies to provide in-house skills, and design groups which want to provide a more solid offer. Clients will increasingly need groups which have a global understanding and can provide global solutions – which again may lead to more mergers and acquisitions activity between groups in the UK, the US, Europe and the Far East.

As projects call for greater integration across all aspects of communication, and input from new developments in technology, there will be a greater emphasis on smaller consultancies forming alliances and working more in teams. “There’s more of a blurring of media now and consultancies need to have an awareness of, or access to, these skills. Collaboration and sharing is very important,” says Butler. n

Case study

WESTHILL COMMUNICATIONS AND BT

‘Within the past 18 months clients have wised-up to what they’re looking for,’ says Chris Hill, managing director at Westhill Communications. The consultancy, part of BT’s multimedia roster, developed BT’s first on-line magazine in 1993. Partnership Online (www.partnership.bt.com), aimed at BT’s global clients, has been relaunched incorporating a database-driven system to give BT more control, and the ability to change the content from anywhere in the world on a daily basis. ‘We have given BT a very efficient means of communicating with its customers,’ says Hill.

David Robertson, Westhill’s director of emerging technologies, explains that the site uses Active Server Pages which do not need html authoring, allowing BT staff to publish material on-line without technical training. Design guidelines built into the site ensure high standards are maintained. ‘Westhill has created a means of aesthetic control which is out of the hands of the non-designers. We can get good results pretty quickly,’ says Gordon Butler, multimedia design manager for BT. Butler adds a key challenge for multimedia consultancies is not being frightened of experimenting creatively with new technology and leading the way.

According to Hill, this is precisely what Westhill’s approach is. ‘Unfortunately, there are still groups which are saying yes to clients who ask for multimedia work when they don’t have the skills. Successful consultancies are saying to clients: “this is what we can do”.’ He adds: ‘You’ve got to be able to put together the right teams – even if you haven’t got all the skills in-house.’

Robertson’s role as director of emerging technologies ensures clients will be kept informed about new technological developments and how they might be applied to their business: ‘We’re retained to see the future,’ he says.

So far, Partnership Online’s new site has resulted in a 500 per cent increase in hits, compared to the initial design.

Case study

THE ATTIK AND NIEMETZ

‘We consider The Attik an integral part of our team because we need its skills,’ says Adrian Hassett, managing director of UK operations for Austrian cake manufacturer Niemetz. The Attik recently completed a CD-ROM for the company, which has been relaunched and is marketing its products internationally. ‘Given The Attik’s track record and creative skills I knew it was what we wanted,’ he adds.

Hassett explains the company needed a quality marketing tool which would ‘wow the socks off’ big food manufacturers and supermarket chains. ‘But we didn’t really know what we wanted. The Attik came back with some great examples of what we could do and required very little supervision,’ he says.

The result is a CD-ROM which incorporates the Austrian heritage of the company and takes an old recipe book which has been passed down through generations as its theme. ‘Clients often don’t really know what to ask for and find it hard to visualise what we can offer them. Basically, they want more upmarket presentation material and we can enhance what would otherwise be a mundane presentation,’ says Andrew Shillito, multimedia manager at The Attik.

The CD-ROM is used to portray the various aspects of the company from the manufacturing processes to the products themselves. ‘We wanted to give it a classical quality, as opposed to being hi-tech,’ adds Shillito. Although the growth of CD-ROMs hasn’t met initial expectations, Shillito says not only is there demand from clients, there is also improved accessibility to CD-ROM drives.

‘Trust is important for this sort of project,’ says Hassett. ‘We are keen to continue our relationship with The Attik and will use it for other projects.’

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