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Virgin Enlists Interactives

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Web Projects Pick Up Speed In Branson's U.S. Plan
LOS ANGELES--Virgin Group, the growing fleet of companies founded by flamboyant British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is making a major interactive push in the U.S.
Several Virgin companies are targeting or hiring interactive shops around the country for projects ranging from building Web sites to creating e-commerce programs.
The London office of Virgin Entertainment Group has been talking to U.S. shops about building a site to sell music over the Internet for its Virgin Megastores chain, confirmed Christos Garkinos, the Los Angeles-based company's vice president of marketing. "It's a big project, and there will definitely be a focus on it," Garkinos said.
At press time, sources said Adjacency, San Francisco, had won a pitch for the project. Executives there declined comment. Glenn Ward, director of the new e-commerce unit in London, said he has been talking to about six shops but declined further comment.
Separately, Virgin Atlantic Airways recently hired San Francisco interactive shop iXL after a lengthy search. Its first project will be to redesign the Norwalk, Conn.-based airline's Web site, which customers use to book flights.
"We realized we need to be cutting-edge," said Gareth Edmondson-Jones, manager of industry and public affairs for Virgin Atlantic. "Our current Web site is functional, but it's not as much fun as the airline itself." The updated site will be launched in the first quarter of 1999, he said.
Budgets for both companies' interactive plans could not be determined.
The company's core corporate Web site, www.virgin.com, has also been revamped--a project that Virgin Net in London handled, according to sources. While the new site enables visitors to better navigate the Virgin empire, Branson is not expected to order a corporate e-commerce site. "Virgin is like feudal Germany. It's a collection of independent companies that don't get on with each other, and we are all competing for Branson's attention," said one Virgin executive in the U.K.
Virgin's dealings with U.S. shops is in line with Branson's long-term plan to make the U.S. the company's base, said sources. The quirky balloonist, skydiver and so-called "capitalist hippie" may relocate from the U.K. to personally oversee operations here. His U.S. push most recently included the introduction of the new Virgin Cola here.
Virgin's traditional ad shops appear unaffected by the recent flurry of activity. Ground Zero, Santa Monica, Calif., continues to handle Virgin Cola, while CMG Communications, New York, handles Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin Group's sales reached $3 billion in 1997, and are growing by 25 percent a year.
--with Angela Dawson and Jane Irene Kelly