Agency Avatars

Duran Duran performed there. A Harvard law professor held a lecture. Starwood Hotels introduced its new Aloft chain there as well. And Adidas set up shop.

The place: Second Life, a 3-D virtual world, launched publically three years ago by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, which mirrors real-life commerce by allowing residents to buy and sell property and goods. More than 800,000 people have established residency there and, at press time, about 300,000 had been active within the last 24 hours alone. During that time, residents had exchanged more than $330,000 in virtual money.

It’s one of the Internet’s hottest properties. And advertising agencies are starting to move in.

Last week, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s virtual office, created by the agency’s London headquarters and London production company Rivers Run Red, was officially up and running. And Leo Burnett Worldwide and its marketing-services partner Arc Worldwide are developing an “ideas hub” in Second Life that is expected to be operational by next month. Both agencies expect their virtual offices to offer both private and public spaces, and see the possibilities for client and agency involvement as “limitless.”

This virtual real-estate investment is mainly being driven by two needs. One is to cull greater learning about the online social networking phenomenon, the other is to demonstrate digital dexterity to clients by practicing what they preach. Also, as agencies try to foster greater creative collaboration among their international staffs, Second Life provides a far less expensive meeting forum than a global journey to corporate headquarters or exotic locales like Cannes.

Mark Boyd, director of content at BBH in London, says, “I think we know media is changing dramatically. Increasingly, consumers are looking for more and more rewards, they are getting more involved. In terms of the agency, we’re increasingly talking about the fact that we must do and learn rather than learn and do. … What we are keen to do is explore.”

Burnett’s objective with the virtual space—currently in development by the agency’s London office and media firm Millions of Us—is to help unite the agency’s creative people in a single space, says Burnett’s worldwide chief creative officer, Mark Tutssel. (Including Arc, the agency has 2,400 employees in 80 countries.) “This is right on the edge of a new space,” he explains. “I want [ideas hub] to be a fully functioning collaborative department. It allows us to look at ideas, to share briefs, presentations and to put the spotlight on the work. … I want to see it become a place where ideas can go and flourish.” At press time, the hub was limited to an island with a sign post noting that it’s “coming soon.”

Currently, BBH’s space is private, but will evolve to include public areas and allow entry through the use of a virtual receptionist. “This is an investment on our part of how this will work going forward,” says BBH’s Boyd. The virtual design, which agency co-founder John Hegarty helped construct, is an amalgamation of features from the agency’s six offices worldwide—including a dramatic staircase from London and a statue from Brazil—as well as some components that don’t exist in the company’s real world.

“That’s the beauty of it,” says Pete Rogers, digital consultant at BBH in London.”You don’t have to be accurate. There are laws of reality, but here you can build anything.”

BBH, like Burnett, sees the Second Life investment as a way to enhance the agency experience. “It’s a much more exciting way to share work,” says Rogers. “You can e-mail a jpeg and take a look at it on your computer and then e-mail your colleague back, but the experience is a bit flat. Here you can look at it and talk about it in real time.”

Additionally, says Boyd, it could lead to beneficial feedback from visitors and this, in turn, could create valuable recruitment opportunities. “It’s a way for people to interact and it’s a way to involve other creative people in the development of new ideas and new spirit of sharing,” he says. “Potentially, it’s a way of attracting quite different creative people. … Second Lifers are the most pioneering digital explorers.”

Bottom line, say these agency execs, having space on Second Life is an investment in their futures. “As we move from an ad-centered to an ideas-centered world, my job is to focus the agency on creative and big ideas,” Tutssel explains. “It’s going to be a great breeding ground for ideas. And our currency exchange is ideas.”