10/29/10

agency website history

at my day job, we recently came to the conclusion that, as a 2 year-old company that specializes in digital marketing, we should maybe, i don't know, have some sort of a website. (insert embarrassed emoticon here.)

the experience of creating it had me reflecting on previous sites i've done for agencies and, predictably, how much they've changed.

much as i think it's swell to impress fellow agency people, i've always approached agency sites with the belief that potential clients are the primary audience. as such, i believe a site should feel like an extension of the agency itself. so the perfect compliment to an agency's site is when a prospective client walks into the agency for the first time and says, "this is exactly what i expected." (yes, it's possible to please both worlds - see BooneOakley, which not only features a brilliant use of YouTube annotations, it also accurately reflects the agency's culture.) let's take a look at the current and previous agency sites i've worked on, shall we? may we all learn from them.

Proximity Chicago, 2010
the new site at Proximity Chicago puts into practice one of the simple beliefs we preach: in the opt-in environment of digital, a user's interests must come before a marketer's self-interest. so instead of the usual approach of having an agency prattle on about how unique its philosophy is, or how its agency culture is so cool, they even allow dogs (FTR, we don't), the Proximity site offers up news and twitter feeds about the latest in digital marketing - content that would ideally be of interest to prospective clients. seems smart, i think. a couple other highlights:

• the site has the usual shareability options. it also encourages pass-along by tying in visitor numbers to a donation the agency will give to Oxfam America.

• of course, the site also has standard agency information a click away. the agency's company info has a blog which is truly crowdsourced - everyone in the agency is responsible for one day per month. the content has become a great demonstration of the breadth of interests our employees have, both online and off.

• the talent section features side projects our employees have started. (the most timely one: the Xmas Power Hour - just in time for the holidays.)

• that section also not only features agency leader bios, but also QR codes which will directly download leaders' contact info to a user's mobile.

• the contact info allows prospects to set up a 15-minute "biggest pain point" meeting (via phone, in-person, skype, whatever), and of course allows people to find their exact proximity to Proximity, complete with directions.

• the site's also in constant beta mode. it was launched recently, and already, there are things that bother us about it. so we're redesigning some functions, adding a few new things, etc. and this time, it won't take us 2 years to complete.

None of these features are particularly groundbreaking. But they certainly reflect user habits and site expectations that are different from even a couple years earlier. speaking of a couple years ago...

zig, 2006
zig (which is now Crispin Porter's office in Canada) already had an established agency identity. the colors were orange and white. the type was big and bubbly and friendly. and the business cards featured agency employees' first names in bold type on one side. point being, in addition to doing some nice work, it was a pretty personable place. the zig site simply attempted to bring that personable-ness to life online.

• the site practically demanded interactivity, by asking users to submit their own first name upon arrival. once the name was submitted, it was used throughout the visit.

• the content would change based on the user's interest, whether they were a prospective client, a prospective employee, or they were just casing the joint.

• we attempted to make the site as human as possible. each visit featured a different tour guide who would walk the visitor through the site. sometimes, the guide would forget the user's name (just like in real life). sometimes, the guide would have to take a phone call, so they'd have to hand the visitor off to another employee. and if you wanted to see a page a second or third time, the guide would notice that and respond accordingly.

• much as we tried to build in the human-ness, the site's version 2.0 would've done a much better job if it had seen the light of day. (it still looks great in Microsoft Word.) the goal was to switch from a Flash-based site to an HTML site, so we could pull in real-time data (not to mention improve search results and user experience). so for example, if you came to visit in the middle of the night, the whole visit would be guided by flashlights. if there was, say a tornado warning near the zig offices, the visitor would accompany the guide down to the basement until the danger had passed. oh, what fun it would've been.

much as the site successfully reflected the branding and personality of the agency, we're still kicking ourselves for launching the site in Flash. it was 2006. we should've known better, unlike the previous site i did...

Hadrian's Wall, 2001
Hadrian’s Wall was founded in 2001, at the peak of the unnecessarily-long-Flash-intros trend. and really, who were we to fight it?

the original Hadrian's Wall site not only featured the ubiquitous Flash intro, it also had a few other overused devices of the time: page-flipping animation and really poor navigation.

that said, the site accurately reflected the agency’s graphic identity and sense of confidence, and was the source of multiple new business inquiries. and when prospective clients first walked into the agency after visiting the site, they really did say, “this is exactly what I expected.” we always assumed they meant that in a good way.

Arian, Lowe & Travis, 1999
a keen observer will note the visual above is, in fact, not a screen shot of a website at all. thankfully, all evidence of that site seems to have been lost to time and faulty back-up drives. but here’s the story:

Arian, Lowe & Travis was a small creative boutique (though in new business pitches, the founder was prone to describe it as “large” “full-service” and occasionally “global” if it would help the agency’s chances of winning business). the agency was looking to change its culture to more of a learning environment, and we were challenged to re-brand the agency to reflect this new focus.

to put it mildly, we took the “learning environment” direction literally and themed the agency after a college. employees became faculty. department heads became deans. agency credentials took on the look and feel of academic composite books (as shown above). we even had an agency mascot, complete with costume.

and then, of course, there was the website. HTML-based, the site featured the agency fight song (no, seriously), staff photos done up like a fraternity or sorority composite, and the ever-popular-at-the-time list of interesting links we’d found on the World Wide Web. (if you weren’t born yet, most websites at that time had Interesting Links, which were basically opportunities to say, “look what I found! aren’t I cool?” for a modern example, see: Twitter.)

(a funny aside: the URL, altadv.com, now seems to be a dating site for japanese toddlers.)

anyway, at its heart, creating a learning environment-centric culture still strikes me as a smart idea. (Wieden + Kennedy seems to have made this idea work out ok.) but taking it that literally – online or off – is rather regrettable.

on the plus side, we could’ve gone with the other idea that had been bandied about: we were going to have all agency employees legally change their last names to all be the same, and become the agency version of The Ramones.

considering the alternative, you have to admire our restraint.

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