AgenciesInterview

Driftlab

Driftlab brings the spirit of the ‘sweet South’ to interactive design. Scott Cook and Ashley Warren chat to Tom May about Flash, Facebook apps and reliving the Confederacy

.net:  Could you tell us how Driftlab was born?
SC: When the newsgroup for stay-at-home Confederate moms didn’t pan out, I thought I’d give this digital design and production thing a go. It had a glamorous start, with me putzing around in my basement studio. After garnering a couple of unexpected but high-profile awards early on, the bigger clients started knocking. It was at this time that Ash and I had met through the online Flash community and collaborated on a couple of projects (the Bacardi Mojito site was one). It was clear early on that we really complemented each other’s skill-sets. No business plan, no long-term strategy, just a couple of designer/animator/coders with a love for the game. Shortly after realising this mystical union, I opened the Lawrenceville (Atlanta) office and Ash, who remained in St Louis, opened a nice storefront location up there. And so what we have going is a collective of sorts with a couple of trusted friends, purposely keeping it a small and agile operation. 

.net:  What’s been your proudest moment so far?
SC: Few people know it but we made an almost devastatingly bad business decision a couple of years ago. It involved us agreeing to a retainer with another agency that required our complete and full exclusivity. While it was fairly lucrative while the contract was active, it completely took us off the radar with our client base. For a year it was as if we didn’t exist. All resources were allotted to this initiative. At the end of it, we had very little in the bank, nothing we could show in our portfolio, and tumbleweed blowing through the office. We had to come up with a strategy fast. In short, we determined that two things were a must: 1. A new Driftlab site. 2. Establishing a sales role in the company (we’d always relied on our portfolio to do the selling). In 2009/10, we met both of these goals and things turned around radically. Definitely a proud moment when these goals were achieved.

.net:  Your work is largely Flash-based. What’s your take on technologies such as jQuery and canvas?
SC: What’s interesting is that while the emerging non-Flash technologies garner more and more hype, the requests for Flash work have increased for us. We’re always happy to pursue non-Flash solutions for our clients and we have the capabilities to do so, but it just doesn’t look like Flash is going anywhere any time soon. It still seems to be the best solution for immersive and emotive experiences, which is our speciality. And it’s going to take a long time to iron out the cross-browser inconsistencies and get everyone playing on the same board, so to speak. Having said that, I do believe that ultimately the future of the web is a non-plug-in one. It’s just a matter of when. Chances are we’ll release a version of our own site soon that will be jQuery- and canvas-driven. Just to tout our full capabilities.

.net:  You’ve decided to blog the process behind your office makeover, and you make good use of Facebook and Twitter. What’s the thinking behind your social media strategy?
SC: Being a smaller agency we’ve yet to acquire an army of sales and marketing robots to assist us in introductions to potential future clients. This is where social tools such as Facebook and Twitter (where we’re @driftlab) can really level the field.

AW: Since we’ve been using these tools we’ve attained great projects and made introductions to both future employees and contractors to assist our in-house team, as well as potential future interactive and broadcast partners. So in other words, being social is rad, even if our idea of social is sitting behind a computer, plinking about on the keyboard with the lights off and the drapes shut (doors locked, alarm activated, in safe room...).

.net:  What advice would you give someone looking to build a Facebook app?
SC: Don’t do it unless you have a lot of patience (and whisky). The Facebook API is problematic to say the least. They change things on an almost daily basis over at Facebook, leaving countless developers across the globe in tears of frustration and despair. Unfortunately, you’re at their mercy.

AW: The key here is setting your client expectations up front. Much like controlling the weather at an outdoor concert there’s only so much you can do to prepare (well, apart from seeding the clouds).  So talking with the clients up front and developing a strategy to deal with potential curveballs is absolutely key to the success of both the project and the client relationship.
Luckily we have a core team of solid Facebook developers that have overcome the FB tendency to change their hairstyle on a moment’s notice. This has enabled us to adapt quickly and efficiently. Perhaps we’re gluttons for punishment (or masochists) but we now are going on our 10th Facebook app with no end in sight. We can’t say we planned on becoming Facebook developers. However, our goal has always been to adapt to the market and not try and control the future. So for now at least it’s Viva La Facebook!

.net:  There are an awful lot of references to the Civil War on your site: what’s that all about?
SC: Well, we’d seen the regal knight themed sites, the Northern themed sites, the midget clown sites, and thought: it’s high time somebody represented the old South in a site! So we cleaned our muskets, rolled out the cannons, garnished some mint juleps and set to work. This Driftlab thing originated in the Deep South, and after adding an office north of Mason-Dixon line we knew it just made sense to do a site like this. Additionally, the grit and textures of Civil War history played right into our tactile sensibilities and allowed us to achieve an emotive experience... y’all.

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