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Digital Shops Embrace Cheap Chic

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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."