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Web Shops Take Know-How Off Net

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When Verizon wanted visitors to its Verizon Experience store to have a wholly different encounter than they would at a typical cell phone retailer, it took cues from an unlikely source. The company entrusted its interactive agency, R/GA—better known for its work in cyberspace than anything consumers can actually touch—to incorporate the principles of e-commerce. The result was 70 touch-screen kiosks of production demonstrations in the store, which opened outside Dallas Oct. 31.

The Interpublic shop isn't the only digital agency branching far beyond Web sites to do in-store installations, billboards, and user interfaces for gaming consoles and satellite TV. With clients increasingly seeing digital technology as a way to get closer to customers, many digital shops now emphasize their particular combination of tech acumen and user experience to meld marketing, design and product development in new and developing channels.

Agency.com has been adding out-of-home facets to many of its projects for clients including British Airways, T-Mobile and E-Trade. It's running an outdoor campaign in New York's Times Square for E-Trade, where visitors to the area are filmed and then beamed to the sign on the Reuters building. Some have posted photos of their image on the screen to Flickr.

Tom Ajello, creative director at the Omnicom Group agency, credits clients for asking more of their digital shops beyond creating Web sites and banner ads that mimic offline creative (what he calls "matching luggage"). Now that they have more clout with clients, Web shops can execute much broader campaigns, he said. "It doesn't have to be on a computer screen to be interactive," he added.

AKQA has run several digital outdoor campaigns, including a push for directory Yell in the U.K. that used satellite technology to change digital creative on buses based on their location.

R/GA has built up its digital display efforts. In addition to Verizon, it has done work for Nike, such as a push last month to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Air Force sneaker line with a digital display that let customers vote on their favorite version of the shoe.

AKQA has pushed into product interface design. It built the interface for Microsoft's Xbox 360 and MSN TV. It also has begun work on a revamped programming menu for DirecTV.

"Everything has a screen and every screen has a [user] interface," said Tom Bedecarré, CEO of the independent San Francisco shop. "Those skill sets we have [translated]. We've been doing things that aren't marketing; they're more product design."

Yet Web shops may be in for an uphill battle if they try to expand too far beyond their core expertise, said Harley Manning, an analyst with Forrester Research. Just as general agencies specializing in TV campaigns have found it difficult to translate that into great Web work, so too will interactive shops moving into new areas. "When you're having electrical work done in your house, you don't hire a plumber to do it," he said. "The idea that because you create a great Web site you can design a great kiosk is not true."

Unlike brand Web sites, where agencies help marketers communicate messages through content, good product design differs because it facilitates user actions, said Mark Rolston, svp of creative at Frog Design, a Palo Alto product design firm. "They would be foolish to think it's an easy transition," he said.

Bedecarré, however, believes digital shops could use their track record and growing clout with clients to dispel concerns that they are ill-equipped for projects outside their core Web expertise. "We have the benefit of size, scale and a great client list," he said. "There's a sense of confidence that if we're doing interface design for Microsoft, [others] can trust us to do it for them" as well.