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The Internet’s birthday marks the end of digital ‘jack of all trades’

I’ve become a bit of a fan boy of serendipity in the last few years and was particularly delighted to wake up today to the radio news announcing the 25th anniversary of the birth of the internet. Not least as we just had client sign off also today to announce a fantastic win for The Team, to handle the digital experience design work for English Heritage at a particularly exciting time for them.

Family looking at an historic picture

And it made me realise how far it’s all come since then and indeed since the similarly exciting new frontier days of ‘multimedia’ and CD ROM and how everything is now ‘digital’ and that any agency can probably do anything.

Gizza job, I can do that*

The key for me is that they shouldn’t try to do everything and that fortunately many now don’t. Ad agencies have zoned in on applying digital to create more accountable campaigns so that both halves of the budget work. Direct agencies are starting to apply insight from big data to deliver personalised real time conversations. PR agencies have claimed social media channels and talk to consumers direct, not via media gate keepers of old. Experiential agencies have sussed out clever ways of using mobile technologies to activate brands out and about at events.

But what of the generic digital agencies that haven’t been gobbled up and shoe horned into the bigger groups. They’ve become clever production companies, the digital equivalent of what clever post production specialists are to the movie industry which saw Creative Britannia collecting gongs at the Oscars the other week. These digital jacks currently specialise in clever digital product/service mashups but soon the industrial design agencies and IT consultancies will have that back too, leaving them washed up on the beach.

Gravity Pic

But brand builders?

I remember being bemused when one of today’s biggest and most successful jack of all trade (as we all were then) digital agencies came out in the late 90’s with a strap line heralding themselves as ‘brand builders’, yet they had next to no experience in strategic brand work. Their first work for one of the world’s largest tech brands saw the same rounded edges, 3D effects and drop shadows they’d used for a similarly large global auto client and which would have been more at home on the USS Enterprise. And it completely flew in the face of the flat design direction detailed in three fat volumes of brand guidelines that this tech brand had just circulated to its roster of agencies, many of whom were still struggling to spell HTML.

And that’s why we’re particularly excited about our announcement for English Heritage today who themselves are on a journey as they consider the likely prospect of acquiring charity status and the need to stand on their own two feet.

The battle for engagement

Coming from a position of being much loved but possibly a little dusty and almost the nation’s Cinderella by the fire, English Heritage realised they had to join the queue to compete for everybody’s free time and money. To compete with the attraction of obvious players like the National Trust, Tate Modern and the Science Museum as well as the engagement of less obvious competitors like the iPad, XBox, Alton Towers and the new generation of engaging, entertaining and educational television celebrities like Brian Cox and James May.

It’s all about experience, and this year feels like the year of experience. In his RSA talk and book Stuffocation, James Wallman talks about how we’ve had enough of stuff and need experiences more than ever.

Experience me

I was given the most amazing experience of my life, for Christmas (and I’ve seen some stuff) in the form of a ticket to the NT/Punch Drunk Drowned Man experiential theatrical production set in 5 floors of a deserted warehouse in Paddington. (I was delighted though not surprised to see a double page feature in last week’s Campaign magazine describing a one day workshop they are now running on the set for brand managers on creating brand experiences and storytelling).


And that’s the job English Heritage have. To build on the momentum of the London 2012 opening ceremony celebrating and telling the story of our heritage and history. Phase one of the ‘bringing to life’ of Stonehenge has just opened. When the next phase opens, which will see the erection of prehistoric huts and recreations of life those thousands of years ago, it will rival any other experience to be found on these shores, as their exhibits at Dover Castle already do today, spanning and bringing to life several key historical periods from Norman invasions to World War 2.


The missing pages

English Heritage clearly realise the importance of their brand and the role they play in their visitors and member’s lives. Not interrupting but engaging and providing experiences. An 18 month partnership with brand specialists Smith & Milton saw a strong new brand work developed that starts this work.

But they needed help bridging the gap between a set of static brand guidelines and the digital world. Digital brand guidelines in many brand books are rarely more than a single page with a PowerPoint template and a token web page design. It’s almost as if there are ten pages missing.

They needed help exploring and defining how their brand should behave and be experienced digitally, starting with a new web site that visitors will use before, during and after a visit on desktop, tablet and smartphone devices.

Digital playing its part

We were delighted when Luke Whitcomb, Marketing Director at English Heritage said “Our digital channels are going to be a vital part of our mission going into the future. Through their pitch, The Team demonstrated a real depth of understanding and empathy, not only of our brand and the journey we’re on, but most importantly the role digital design can play in audience engagement. We were particularly impressed with their thinking and track record in creating responsive digital experiences that work effectively across different platforms.”

So they chose us because of the combination of strategic brand thinking and specific digital ability – something we’ve built in the thirty years since the Team was founded and which a generic digital agency simply can’t create overnight.

Been there, done that

In our time The Team has designed album covers for the Beatles and rebranded the Metropolitan Police. Digitally we’ve designed a website to complement one of the world’s most renown restaurant experiences,  created an engaging and global award winning intranet platform for an IT consultancy and driven potentially lifesaving consumer behaviour change with a responsive site around gas safety.

We call it digital experience design and we apply it to all our work for external and internal audiences. It’s not new but it is special and the preserve of agencies that specialise in defining, crafting and communicating brands but who also understand digital’s role in connecting brands with their audiences.

Right brief for the job

We’re seeing a trend towards client briefs for digital work, particularly web sites that need to address multiplatform audiences as with English Heritage, that separate brand-focussed digital experience design and the technical development, avoiding the jack of all trades approach.

Happy birthday Internet. Digital is dead. Long live digital experience design.

* As said by the ultimate jack of all trades, Yosser Hughes, in Alan Bleasdale’s TV drama Boys from the Blackstuff.

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