The Interactive Agency – a Creature of the Past? (Pt 2)

2. Marketing: the Lure of the Pitch

After the dotcom sector went belly-up in the late 90s, web agencies lost their footing and allowed the ad agencies to catch up in the digital domain. The result was a very significant paradigm shift in the way digital channels are handled, both in terms of strategic relevance, budgeting and execution. Suddenly, for good or bad, all websites and online services were treated as part of a general marketing toolbox, even though the craftsmen involved clearly didn’t yet quite know how to handle those tools.

Essentially, many ad agencies are still lacking the proper methodological foundation to integrate their brand-oriented services with what is at least to some degree a technical, user-driven channel. There is no clear concept in the marketing world what interactivity means in communicative terms. The client-server paradigm does not translate directly to broadcasting. Front-end technology cannot be seen as an extension of advertising, no more than back-end technology is analogous to fulfillment services. And online social networking cannot, and should not, be treated as a marketing free-for-all.

Nowhere is this lack of understanding more apparent than in the case of The Pitch.

When agencies go fishing for website assignments, you often see them baiting the hook with a spiffy-looking free pitch: an early stab at a design that was never actually commissioned. This reveals a highly superficial attitude towards website development and is in reality nothing but a ruse; a poorly concealed sales-gimmick that poses as the real deal.

You would think most prospective clients would see through this ploy and pass up what incredulously purports to be a free lunch. Sadly, however, many a fish is hooked by the sheen of a supposedly finished product, and are reeled in thinking it’s going to be a budget friendly deal, since so much work appears to be done already. But in the end, these projects almost unequivocally flounder and end up being thrown back into the proverbial lake.

No method to the madness
Pitches have been a common element in almost all forms of marketing since the ad men on Madison Avenue actually wore ties. But when it comes to websites, expecting a design pitch to solve real communication problems is nothing short of wishful thinking.

Just like an architect would never begin designing a house by choosing fabrics and wallpapers, a webdesigner should not be allowed to form visual preferences prematurely. The visual appearance of a website is quite simply not what makes it tick.

That is not to say that the look-and-feel of a website isn’t important – quite the contrary. Websites are windows to the rest of the world and are as such increasingly important extensions of corporate brands and visual identities. But until you know exactly where you want to place your windows, whom you want to have peek inside and exactly where you want to direct their eyes, it would be pointless to plan for which window treatments to use.

In the case of the uncommissioned pitch, there is typically no method and no analysis – only the somewhat random playing with styles. A pitch is by its very definition a sales process deprived of substance: an attempt to conjure up the semblance of communicative coherence or meaning, where no foundation for either has been established. This is simply because the pitch was never intended to be a solution to anything. The pitch is a sales tool and as such only aims to please, or else it will fail its purpose.

Thus, setting an ad agency loose on its own, starved of information and direction, to throw colors, décors, fonts and layouts at the proverbial wall to see what sticks, is not the right way to start.

Designing interactivity
Apple’s CEO and evangelist Steve Jobs cleverly, and perhaps inadvertently, expressed the nature of interactive design like this:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Design in this respect is quite unlike art. It exists to serve a purpose and does not float suspended inside a bubble, free of obligations and ties to the outer world.

The perhaps most prominent role graphic design has to fulfil when it comes to website development is the enabling of interaction. If it can be said to be the programmer’s task to create the technical framework and functionality, then it is the designer who is responsible for creating clarity, cohesion and, ultimately, usability. In this context, the graphic designer functions not only as a communicator but, more importantly, more like an industrial designer. And this is clearly not a discipline that quite fits into the modus operandi of an ad agency.

The steps on the stairway to a perfect website represent multitudes of questions – some of them communicative and some of them technical in nature. For whom does the site exist; which emotional and intellectual response is desired? Is the purpose of the website to stimulate some form of behaviour? If so, how is this behaviour channeled into concrete action? In what way, shape or form should the user’s interaction be allowed to surface, and how is this interaction to be encouraged and resolved? Is the site meant to be used often or rarely? How can the site be kept topical and updated? Will the site accumulate any form of user generated data, and how is this to be processed and evaluated, once gathered? These are all questions that affect web development on a very fundamental level.

Until these questions have been asked and adequately answered, you can safely assume that any visual product prematurely presented will be nothing but fluff. When presented with a polished but uncommissioned design pitch, what you really should be asking yourself this: is the pitch in itself a sign that the pitching agency is truly the best and most adequate producer available to develop your website? Or is it simply proof that you’ve just met the most desperate one?

Tomorrow: Part 3. “IT: the Antithesis to Branding?”

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