"It's an old adage, but we believe we're only as good as our last piece of work", says Daniel Bonner, executive creative director of AKQA. After nearly 12 years with the company, his guidance has helped the award-winning London team become one of the world's most creative and innovative. It has an impressive showreel that features creative for Virgin, Smirnoff, Pot Noodle, Nike, Xbox 360 and Coke among its recent projects, and so the agency has plenty of work to shout about. As Bonner explains, "We live in a digital age, and our work is about participation - connecting brands with consumers, bringing things to life, and getting people involved."
AKQA's recent creation of the Fiat website is a great example of this interactive nature of websites. As Nick Turner, creative director, explains, "The brief was a simple one-liner: sell more cars. Fiat wanted to make sure it wasn't just a pretty site, but that we would create the world's best automotive website, and bring Fiat into the digital era." Tasked with profiling the whole range and making people more aware of the Fiat brand, the AKQA team visited dealerships and went on dealer training; by learning how to sell cars, they could interpret the different elements into the online environment. "Car websites usually show the cars cut out on white," Turner continues, "so our challenge was to show the range but in a different way. We consulted architects on the geometrics and created an environment based on the Lingotto building in Turin, the original Fiat building. It has five floors connected with ramps, so we used these ramps to create a hyper-real, photorealistic showroom - we wanted people to ask if it was a 'real' showroom." The whole environment was created in 3D rather than video, using CAD drawings of the cars at angles chosen by the client. The challenge, as Turner explains, when working closely with RealtimeUK to produce all the 3D components, was to make sure it looked like a real showroom, not a game. You can check out images of the drafts and 3D models in Showcase on your disc.
The user journey of buying a car is key on a site like this, which is the area of expertise for director of strategy and head of user experience Mo Rogers, and her team. "Car sites usually focus on the cost and value, and the hard facts of purchasing. Fiat wanted to change that, to look at the emotional side - how choosing your car expresses your personality and your style." Analysing the traditional offline journey of buying a car enabled the team to marry this user-based thinking with beautiful design. "You're not compromising usability - it just works, in a beautiful seamless experience," Rogers explains.
"Our challenge is to find ways where digital and interactive media can be better than the real thing," continues Bonner. "You're unlikely to go into a real showroom and see all the cars in all the colours, so in a digital world we can make it even better than real life." By creating a perfect environment, people are more likely to participate.
As well as making it easy for users to switch between the whole range and exploring each car in detail, with plenty of navigation at the top of the site, Turner points out features the team created such as 'help me choose'. "Fiat's positioning is 'A to B with a smile', so we added a 'jackpot' Easter egg when users play around with the options for selecting price, performance and luggage space," he explains.
Andy Hood, creative development director, explains how AKQA combined several distinct applications under one seamless integrated interface, enabling a truly immersive user experience; animation and video were included, plus voiceover for key features of the journey.
The AKQA London team was also brought in to work on Nike's Supersonic project. Nike wanted to build on their Run London annual 10k race by creating something different and new; Supersonic is the result. With Nike+ at its centre, it combines music and running to appeal to a younger audience, and AKQA's website completes the interactive experience, building a community by providing Bluetooth downloads and SMS alerts. Participants had to earn their right to compete, so as well as tracking runners' performance as they worked towards finding the fastest 500 girls and 500 boys from trials, the site gets people talking about the race and promotes the artists - Dizzee Rascal and The Enemy - performing at the final, a 'money can't buy' live music event.
Another recent major project was the Silverlight prototype created for Microsoft and the BBC. As Hood explains, "They wanted us to produce a showcase application for the keynote at Mix in Vegas. Within four weeks, we had to help shape, design and produce the application, before Silverlight had been released. It was a reasonably tall order, but that excites us - it's up to us what we can make of technology, to see how far we can take it, and what we can produce." Tasked with producing a robust application that is creatively inspiring, the team had to fulfil two separate briefs: Microsoft wanted an application to show the key features of Silverlight, whereas the BBC wanted a way to distribute its audio and video content to a specific youth market.
AKQA created the concept of a 'badge' - a collection of media, video, photos and audio gathered together. Users create their profile, and all the content - which in the prototype comes from the enormous BBC archives - is tagged; the tags then enable the site to suggest more similar content that the user may enjoy, as well as recommendations for other interviews and events coming up, along with reminders. "Users can either set up a traditional playlist and just listen or look at photos or videos, or they can actively search and get visual results of content," Hood explains. "They can also watch content together with friends, at same time, through a shared Messenger application. It moves and reacts in a familiar way, with nothing to suggest it's a new technology, which gives us the confidence that it works as well as any existing software." Every aspect of the site was built in modules so it can be easily edited, and much was handcoded as the tools weren't finished. He lists this as one of his favourite projects, "because we brought so much more to it than just having the skills to develop it."
These new developments are an essential part of AKQA, as Hood and Turner explain. Last year the agency trialled a direct brainwave interface, and the team also does lots of rapid prototyping, working with whatever technology produces the innovative results they're looking for. There's lots of research, which is different from other agencies. Rogers agrees that they have an attitude of 'Let's have a go and see how we can make it work.'
"What makes us different," says Bonner, "is that we create things that haven't been done before; we do this across traditional interactive experiences, e-commerce platforms, interface design and new product development. Content creation is also key and AKQA Film, which we've just announced, helps us achieve this. In the case of Nike Supersonic, we delivered on the Nike+ promise, 'Run like you've never run before' by inventing a whole new type of running event. Is that the job of a digital agency? I don't know, but it might be the job of an agency that solves its clients' problems in a world where everything's digital anyway. It's not just about the website, it's about how we get everyone involved - a broader view."