Agencies Map Out New Creative Avenues Online

Thanks to the rise of open-source computer programming, Internet users with minimal programming experience can build on top of Web applications, such as constructing their own innovative and powerful maps. Now, interactive agencies want to use the same emerging creative tools to build their brands online.

The tenets underpinning open-source programming hold that a Web developer should create platforms on which others can build, not proprietary applications. While long used in IT infrastructures, the open-source ethos in consumer Web applications could offer new creative possibilities.

In June, Google released an open-source application-programming interface for its mapping program that allows anyone to layer data on top of maps. In just weeks, dozens of innovative Google Maps “mash-ups” have popped up, such as ChicagoCrime.org, which combines city police data with a map of reported crime locations, as well as others that show where to get free wireless Internet access in San Francisco and where all registered sex offenders in Georgia live.

Commercial sites have tapped into the grassroots momentum. Judy’s Book, a local information startup site, has integrated Google Maps with reviews of local businesses. Classifieds site Oodle is using the API to map real estate listings. Prudential’s Chicago real estate office put together a tool that allows visitors to see satellite images of neighborhoods from Google Earth, combined with photos and details of houses for sale.

Google rivals Yahoo! and Microsoft have followed suit, releasing APIs for their own mapping and satellite-imaging products. “It’s a natural evolution,” said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a New York Web ad agency. “Some of the best ideas are collaborative.”

Yet so far, the creative energy has been mostly a grassroots affair. “It doesn’t fit into how agencies think,” said Gary Stein, a JupiterResearch analyst and former strategist at Red Sky Interactive. “They’re not keyed into developing things as part of the community.”

Several agencies have begun experimenting. The London outpost of independent interactive Web agency AKQA used the Google Maps API in the RunLondon.com Web site for Nike. Visitors can plot out different London Nike stores on a Google map. Simon Jefferson, account director at AKQA in London, acknowledged the application only scratches the surface of what could be done.

“The potential is for brands to exploit these technologies to deliver a much-enriched experience to consumers, [and begin] to exploit the real potential of the Web,” he said.

Avenue A/Razorfish, part of aQuantive, is combining MapQuest maps with contextual information for three upcoming projects, said Ray Valez, technology discipline lead in the agency’s New York office. Omnicom’s Organic has plans to include the mapping technology within ad unts, said Guthrie Dolin, the agency’s group creative director. “You can really start to tell a story,” he said.

Havas’ McKinney + Silver also sees rich creative opportunities. Jim Russell, the North Carolina agency’s newly installed interactive practice leader, recently sent a memo to his creative directors with links to the Google Maps mash-ups, urging them to think of using similar approaches for clients. One possibility, he said, would be a Google Maps interface for snowmobile maker Polaris that plotted customers’ favorite runs, thereby building community and tying consumers closer to the brand. Said Russell, “Here’s a new and easy-to-develop representation scheme that could break all sorts of new ideas of how brands could manifest themselves.”