Digital Shops Embrace Cheap Chic

NEW YORK When The Barbarian Group, an independent digital shop best known for producing immersive sites like Subservient Chicken and M&M’s World, debuted its first work for General Electric, what users found was not a flashy microsite, but a simple blog built with software used by consumers.

Shops like Barbarian, known for their prowess in using Flash to build deep, immersive sites with intricate animation, have in some cases been embracing a low-fi, low-cost approach by tapping out-of-the-box Web software and free tools and platforms. One obvious upside of this pragmatic approach:  The ability to produce new work during a time of scaled-back budgets.

The moves, which are being done by shops including Critical Mass and EVB, signify the start of a shift in strategy from the wowing of consumers with an experience driven by tech wizardry to the weaving of brands into the fabric of the Web and an emphasis on content. This means putting a premium on sharing, flexibility and speed.

Barbarian’s GE blog, Adventure, uses the agency itself to connect with consumers. The site documents Barbarian employee field trips to the huge company, with  staffers writing first-person accounts of what they’ve learned about topics like wind turbines and childbirth technology. The hope is that the blog will jump-start conversations about future marketing projects. One concept discussed: GE science fairs.

“We’re keeping a journal of our thoughts and using blogging as a thinking instrument,” said Noah Brier, director of strategy at Barbarian. “The idea perfectly fit the medium.”

The shift in thinking is most evident close to these shops’ homes: their Web sites. Several agencies have redone their sites in recent weeks, using them less as examples of their tech handiwork than as showcases for what and how they think.

EVB, Juxt Interactive and Big Spaceship have all debuted sites in the past two weeks built on WordPress. The shops point to the flexibility of the system and the ability to easily incorporate blogs, Twitter and user comments.
“If you want to be smart and savvy, you use the right tools for the job,” said Todd Purgason, cd at Juxt.

Those rules apply to these shops’ clients as well. Critical Mass, an agency that cut its teeth on large sites, turned to a low-fi approach for Supervalu’s CUB Foods, a Midwest chain of supermarkets. The “I Love My CUB” sweepstakes site is built on Drupal, an open-source content-management system that easily brings in feeds from social services. That means the site, which invites users to share photos and stories, was built in less than a month at a price tag under $50,000.
“There’s an authenticity aspect,” said David Armano, former vp of experience design at Critical Mass (now at Dachis Corp.). “The appeal of these things is the direct engagement.”

In addition to these new sites being less expensive to produce, the approach has to do with clients wanting more of an emphasis on igniting conversation and less on the rich, textured sites that have typically accompanied their campaigns. The goal, as EVB CEO Daniel Stein put it, is to “stop building $1 million microsites that attract [only] 10,000 visitors.” Too often those sites are “rich, deep and disconnected,” he said.

San Francisco-based EVB has roots producing sites like Burger King’s Cannes Lion-winning Whopperettes and the much-lauded Elf  Yourself. Instead of playing up its expertise in crafting those sites, EVB hopes to launch digitally based ideas that get people talking and reacting. That can mean skipping a fancy site for a blog.

“We were one of the agencies known for sophisticated Flash microsite work,” said Stein. “There’s honestly not a lot of it out there right now.”

For CytoSport sports drinks, EVB built a customized site in January that was based on WordPress. CytoSport can update the content on the site easily and without the hassle of a complicated site architecture.

To be sure, the million-dollar microsite is not dead. Last week, Coca-Cola rolled out the third version of Happiness Factory, a Flash site with five interactive games that follow the story line of users going to work for a factory that produces happiness. Such a campaign demands high production values, said Freddie Laker, director of digital strategy at Sapient, the shop that built the site for Coke. “The ultimate challenge is the consumer expectations are set very high,” he said. “We wanted to give an experience that’s more rich or it would feel underwhelming for consumers.”

Building out deep destinations has another advantage: It’s a key part of many interactive-agency business models, which are dependent on production fees. Advising a client to skip a $200,000 microsite in favor of a free Facebook page or social network built on Ning for $25 per month might be the right move, but it begs the question of whether the agency can make money.

“We’re pushing for the future as we depend on the past,” admitted Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship. The shop, which increasingly has been using low-cost tools, is best known for its complex HBO “Voyeur” site.

This change in strategy will likely lead to changes in how agencies are paid. For instance, there might be a new emphasis on strategic insights versus time sheets and production costs.

What’s more, free platforms are typically content rich, requiring constant updates. They also provide the flexibility that allows for on-the-go strategy changes. These things bump up the cost, although the work shifts from pre-launch to after it.

“There’s a strong case to be made for ongoing strategy, development and refinement with tactical experimentation on top of that” to be included in the payment structure, Lebowitz said.

Of course, the industry will probably still reward flashier executions. A WordPress blog, even backed with a smart strategy, is unlikely to do well on the awards circuit. Those concerns still matter in an industry where creatives are frequently judged based on the awards their work has won.

Still, said Lebowitz, “the bells and whistles for bells and whistles sake feels very Web 1.0.”