netmagFeature

.net Awards 2013: top 10 best new agencies

A cracking bunch of new agencies that have grown up over the last 12 months. We talk to the people behind 10 of the best

This year's .net Awards are honouring new projects, people and organisations. We may be stuck in a recession, but the folk behind these outfits have taken the plunge in the last year and built their own brand new ventures.

For this award, we're looking for an agency that employs at least two people, produces outstanding work and was formed within the last twelve months. Starting in January, we began a public nominations period during which anyone could nominate any company, including their own. The resulting list of worthy suggestions was then whittled down to this final shortlist of 10 by the .net team.

Head over to the Awards site to cast your vote.

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SMACK

Clients: Aston Martin, TLQ, Royal Caribbean International, OMD
Team size: Seven
Some work you're proud of: One of our initial commissions was a Facebook app for the DVD release of Hollywood movie Goon. The app allowed users to upload their photos and undergo a Goon makeover complete with bruises and black-eyes

Our work for Ebay in conjunction with Shine PR took centre stage in Covent Garden over Christmas. We built a real-time measure of Christmas wants, by designing and developing an innovative Christmas tweet barometer as part of Ebay's experiential social shopping experience. The attraction resulted in thousands of visitors and garnered press coverage in trade, digital and national press including The Guardian, thenextweb.com and Retail Gazette.

We’re also particularly proud of our art direction, design and production of iPad magazine, TLQ (Thought Leadership Quarterly). We use Adobe Digital Publishing Suite integrated with HTML5 and animation to produce the magazine, creating a truly interactive experience for the reader. The second edition of the magazine has just been released and the app has received critical acclaim and positive feedback from its readers for the design and user experience.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
The decision to launch SMACK came at the end of the night at a leaving do. Sel and Lubna had forged freelance careers as a developer and designer and Aalia had worked in-house and at agencies looking after communications and social media teams. The thinking was that having three founders from complimentary fields, equally contributing to projects and overall direction, would result in more well-rounded and robust output.

Our humble hobo beginnings saw us working out of coffee shops and living rooms for the first few months and generating business from contacts and referrals. But it clicked, the dynamic of three meant that all decisions were easily based on a vote and before long the work came rolling in.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
In May 2012, SMACK progressed to moving into its first premises, a windowless basement in Clerkenwell, along with making its two initial hires. The company broke even six months after launch. Most of our work has come in through referrals and we've been lucky enough to win repeat business from almost all of our client base. The seven-strong team now works out of offices in Covent Garden (with windows). The whole team is involved in brainstorming for clients, which has seen us win projects including a mobile app for pre-schoolers and infographic work for Panasonic.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
Our premise has been simple: invest in developing great ideas, produce outstanding work and always deliver to spec and on time.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
We think the fact that our founders come from three different disciplines, as well as our brainstorm sessions as a company, has resulted in more well-thought out ideas and solid work. We stand out for our innovative problem-solving and we've also been told by a number of clients that it's our ability to be nimble and turnaround work on spec and on time, no matter what the brief, that make us a favoured supplier.

We Make Awesome Sh.it

Clients: Coca Cola, Microsoft, Intel, Universal (& EMI), Sony Music, Warner Music, PIAS, Ministry of Sound 
Team size: 5
Syd Lawrence (@sydlawrence)
Tom Gibby (@adverplanner)
Paul King (@nrocy)
Adam Howard (@skattyadz)
Rob Hampson (@robhampson)
Some work you're proud of: We're proud of every project we've done. But a few projects that stand out are as follows:

We launched the new Calvin Harris album, '18 months', by giving it away for free but with a twist. You had to be dancing to listen to the music. The app went to number six in the app stores, was featured on the iTunes homepage and 'New & Noteworthy' section, generated a 27 per cent click-through rate to buy the album and was coined "a work of art from a digital rights management perspective" in an industry where piracy is an ever important issue. Fans and users loved it, with some even using it as a companion exercise app. We won our first FWA for the campaign and it was even played with live on BBC Radio 4.

For Kylie Minogue we created a simple site to aggregate tweets around a hashtag, which would then unlock some exclusive content once a certain threshold was reached. The campaign was the number one worldwide trending topic on Twitter after six minutes. This was all to usher in a brand new single 'Timebomb', which went straight to number one on the iTunes music video charts on the same day.

In Summer 2012, we created "The Beerophone 2000", a social interactive music listening experience ... beer bottles hooked up as a MIDI instrument.

And a few weeks ago we created HarlemShakeRoulette.com. The idea of smashing together two memes into the ultimate viral procrastination site went from drunken chat to finished build within a few hours. Two weeks later, it had over 150,000 visits, wasted over 2000 hours of people's time and generated over 2.2m impressions on Twitter.

We did that project for a laugh. And we are now very sorry.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
A while ago, @adverplanner and @sydlawrence sat down one evening to create the nexus of the internet. Instagram had released its API a few hours earlier, so we jokingly decided to build a site that simply pulls in images of cats being uploaded to Instagram. Obviously. Four hours later Instac.at was born. Instac.at has now had over a million unique visitors. And its big brother, searchinstagram.com, now has 30,000 unique visitors a day. Just over six months later we started to be approached by people wanting their own versions. One thing lead to another, we suddenly realised we were doing some big projects, WMAS was born and there are now five of us making various bits and pieces for some big clients.

.net: What happened in your first year of business?
In the last 12 months, we've worked with people we never thought we would have the opportunity to work with.

It started as a side project, but has become a much bigger business than we ever dreamt of, and we have built an awesome team (albeit deliberately a small one). Prior to 2012, none of us knew anyone in the music industry. In 2012 alone we worked with 24 huge global artists, including Blur, Calvin Harris, Ed Sheeran, JLS, Kylie Minogue, Plan B, Rolling Stones and Swedish House Mafia. The Swedes loved our work so much they even let us party with them in Stockholm, which, in theory, became the first WMAS company outing. That was fun.  

It's quite amazing really, and in all honesty, we're not entirely sure how it has all happened so quickly. But if 2013 is anywhere near as awesome as 2012, we are going to be very happy people.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
The word 'job' isn't used at WMAS. We have a hobby that we are fortunate enough to get paid for. Our clients believe this shines through in the projects we work on.

We love learning new things and tinkering with new technology. We learn by doing. We don't have an office. We work where we want to work, when we want to work. As long as we're having fun, and our clients are happy, we are happy.

One client even said "I fucking love working with you guys".

We also firmly believe that you should be proud of what you do. Each month we make sure that each of us is proud of something we did during the month. Whether that is something we made, or something we have done.

Everyone talks about a work life balance. Ultimately, work takes up the majority of your life anyway, so you might as well enjoy it.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?

  • We like to make things that entertain people.
  • There is little better than putting a smile on someone's face.
  • We're the definition of the virtual office.

If we wanted to become millionaires, we would move to Turkey.

In The Loop

Clients: Akufen, Departement, Emakina, Fidel Studios, Swiss Art Gate, Golf Club of Gonville, Audemars Piguet, Hugo Boss
Team size: Two
Some work you're proud of: Our current project, the new web series "Emilie", for which we handle the Flash development. It was very hard to synchronise a long movie with all interactions that users can have with their phone. Also, Tweetville and Chaptr were very cool. We wanted an innovative app with new approach to UX and, of course, a pixel-perfect design. And, of course, we love to create our online portfolio.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
We worked together in same agency before In The Loop. When we were working together on projects, it was incredibly easy for us to collaborate and find ideas. We have the same creative approach to the digital stuff. We are both really passionate about our work and we love to be innovative. After we both quit the agency, we collaborated on a new project and it was really fun to work together again. So it was obvious to decide to make a new step and to create In The Loop.

.net: What  happened in your first year of business?
Pretty cool things. We worked with interesting people on cool projects. We won a FWA for our portfolio website and that was a really cool start for us. :)

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
Yes of course, and if we didn't have a similar kind of philosophy we couldn't work together. We are both creative in our respective tasks. We are passionate! We are motivated! We care about details and not about the time. We don't work for people who don't respect the industry! (You may be surprised by the huge number of these people.)

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
We're only two people and we develop websites for different devices, smartphones and tablet applications. We have Canada's best developer (according to the FITC Awards 2012) and one of the best visual and interactive designers, who is living in Lausanne, Switzerland. We work closely from the beginning of the projects. We're really happy to work together because we know that we will have fun and that's the goal - having fun and creating.

SuperFriendly

Clients: AOL, Google, TimeInc, WHYY, 1-800-Contacts and more
Team size: Four, plus a regular network of SuperFriends
Some work you're proud of: Everything on our site

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
After many years working at, for, and with a number of agencies, founder Dan Mall decided to go it alone. Wanting the freedom to adopt or resist process, do work without the restrictions of overhead, and work from home to spend more time with his wife and daughter, SuperFriendly was born.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
Lots! We published an annual report of all the goings on, from hours worked to referral sources to monthly income breakdown.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
Our motto is "defeating apathy and the forces of evil." That's mostly a reminder to us that the work we do shouldn't just be usable but surprising and inherently upright as well. Lastly, work should support life, not the other way around.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
Mainly, we're SuperFriendly!

Pixeldot Creative

Clients: The Body Shop, Hibu, Yell.com, Stagecoach, EMC, RSPCA, Legatum Institute, Meyer & Mortimer, Monex Europe, Astellas, Boehringer Ingelheim, Cambridge Education Group
Team size: Four
Some work you're proud of: We're proud of all the work we create, but we'll give special mention to www.bessiemay.co.uk
www.brandvaughan.co.uk, www.kathrynsargent.co.uk and www.meyerandmortimer.com. We are also most proud of our branding, which makes a tangible difference to our clients, whether in public perception, sales or bottom line.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
One sunny summer Friday in 2011 in Brighton, Luke Taylor sent an email to all the creatives in the large shared office where he worked as a brand and print designer, to see if anyone fancied a drink.

Janusz Rust, brand and digital designer, was the only one to reply.

Realising they had a great affinity for each other’s way or working, they started to collaborate on projects, and soon found themselves working together, sharing ideas and concepts and jointly developing brands, print, web frontend and large digital projects.

A year later, it was obvious to them both that it made sense to merge properly and Pixeldot Creative was formed. Today, Pixeldot has grown into the creative business that Luke and Jan always wanted, and has doubled to four people and even has its own office dog.

The team are always striving to keep ahead of trends, develop concepts not seen before, and be as proactive for their clients as possible.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
Our first year has been eventful and exciting. We receive almost all our work through recommendations, and for every project we take time to make sure every client we work with has the best possible outcome.

We started the year working on small projects and have quickly progressed to meeting with multi-national companies in places we could have only dreamed of a year ago.

We have two new team members – one digital, one print, both brilliant, and both part of the Pixeldot family truly working as a team to deliver a rounded brand and creative projects.

We have moved offices, become more streamlined in our procedures and developed a new philosophy for of approaching branding projects which engage all parts of required business outcomes and work seamlessly through offline and online.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
Our philosophy is simple. Good design must communicate, not just decorate. It must deliver a message, a thought or a feeling – and that must always be the focus of any creative project.

But that communication will carry more weight, as well as be more noticeable, memorable and recognisable if it’s delivered in a way that’s as visually engaging for that target audience as possible.

Our mantra is 'Beauty with Brains'.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?

  • We believe that a design is only successful if it meets the client/project goals
  • We think with a creative business focus – assessing the problem before jumping to a solution
  • We only promise what we can deliver, and always deliver what we promise
  • We always consider the big picture: that a project’s success is a better reflection on everyone than minute-by-minute itemised bill
Maido

Clients: Virgin, Sony Pictures, Volvo, LG, Land Rover, Three, Waitrose, New Look, Mindshare, Davina McCall, Homebase, JUST EAT, Impulse, Kleenex, Mazda, OMDi/UK
Team size: 13
Some work you’re proud of: Twitter considered our LG Ticket Hunter Application a ‘Best in Class’ example. We created a responsive website integrated with Twitter and Google Maps to raise awareness of the new Optimus L Series and to promote the LG Arena in Birmingham. This outstanding social app generated 60,000 tweets in five days and over 40,000 page views.

Our Spider-Man application proved both inherently social and engaging, and won a Gold Award at The Internationalist Awards 2012. The app allowed users to create their own personalised comic strip. The clear UX lead to a high completion rate and the app generated 1.3 million page views in over eight countries.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
Maido’s founding team shared the perspective that, while brands maintain a strong emotional attachment in above-the-line campaigns, the same could not be said for digital and social. They had all previously collaborated on digital projects and had lived through these frustrations. Through a shared passion for digital, they devoted themselves to developing strong relationships with brand managers and their agency counterparts to enable them to create superior digital experiences for their customers. Today we remain united by a passion for our work and our team.        

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
Our first year has surpassed even our own expectations, and our future is looking even more successful. We have doubled in size, won a Gold Internationalist Award for our stunning Spider-Man app, and very recently won a hackathon at the PHP UK conference. We also received lots of press attention having produced the first YouTube gadget with open-graph actions on behalf of Homebase.   

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
We work on three main principles:

  • Maido is a place where technology will inform design and also learn from it. This is encouraged through a close working relationship between our designers and developers
  • We always remain KPI focused and we believe in creating a real and measurable return on investment on behalf of our client
  • We enjoy an inclusive company culture; no matter what job title you have, your opinion will always be heard and respected 

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
We are fundamentally social. We focus on creating applications that incorporate a broad range of social mechanics, and for every project we strive to be an extension of the brand that we are working with. We insist on real business results delivered in beautiful and impactful way. 

Brian Hoff

Clients include: Outbrain, Breadcrumb POS (Groupon), WhippleHill, Beyond the Whiteboard, Practice Ignition and Matchbox
Team size: Two
Work we're proud of: WhippleHill is one of my favourite most recent marketing site and product launch (went live in December). A huge effort on all parts and a complete rethinking of their brand, online presence and product alignment

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
I started out in 2008 as a means to seek fulfillment in my work and personal life. Prior to this, I was working for Apple as a software and hardware trainer and wasn't 100 per cent happy. I needed to get my hands dirty in design. I took a chance, left Apple and started my blog, The Design Cubicle. This unexpectedly lead quickly to tons of traffic and exposure of my work. Clients slowly but surely kept coming and with greater and greater exposure through the years, I was able to grow my business, make a more positive impact, explore curiosities and work with great people.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
My first year of business was shaky. I was never quite certain if I was doing things "right." Was my pricing too high? Too low? Would my contract actually protect me? At the same time, I was learning the business of design: how to talk to clients, help clients understand decisions, keeping clients to a schedule. I was never a business expert, so I mostly learned the hard way. But like a good dog, you only need to show me a trick once. My older business methodologies can be read over at my blog. It's beneficial having this documented for my own purposes. It allows me to reflect and see how much I've grown and changed. To this day, I'm always thinking up better ways to run my company.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
Our philosophies are to (a) Do good work. Good work leads to greater work. (b) Be curious. Always question ourselves and our clients. Curiosity leads to a clearer narrative. (c) Be passionate. When looking for people to work with, passion is a must. There's people that want to design. And there's those that need to design. We want those people as our employees and our clients.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
Passion. Passion to create, improve and influence the digital future.

BAJI

Clients: Seattle Seahawks, Rotary International, Tooth & Nail Records, The Rich Dad Company, Harkins Theatres, Towel Dry, Surf Incubator, Elements of Education, America’s Foundation for Chess, Bezel Photo, Acts 29 Network, Ligonier Ministries and Liberate Network
Team size: Our team consists of nine people, including four partners
Some work you're proud of: We're currently working on a project for the Seattle Seahawks that we hope to launch within a couple months. That's a very exciting project for a young agency like ours

Another project that's near and dear to our hearts is our work with Elements of Education, a non-profit that oversees two alternative schools in the Tacoma Public Schools system. The organisation's schools boast some of the best academic measurements in the state of Washington. We worked with them to develop a new branding system and positioning statement, as well as a content-focused website highlighting the life of the students at the school.

As an added bonus, our partners taught students at Tacoma School of the Arts on project management, branding, content strategy and social media and design. These workshops with a selected team of artists from the school set the foundation for the students running and overseeing the content strategy of the new website. It’s an exciting approach by the school for giving students hands-on experience and ownership. We’re looking forward to the work they produce.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
An interesting tidbit about BAJI is that, while we've done a lot of freelance work with agencies in the past, most of the partners have never worked in an agency environment full-time. All of us held significant leadership roles on in-house creative teams for large non-profits before banding together to form the agency. That experience has helped us understand the client side in a way some other young agencies may not.

Over the years, we had all talked about starting something together, and a confluence of events led to the perfect time to take the dive in the summer of 2012. Originally, we had planned to ease into doing the agency full-time while holding down our jobs, but we immediately had some large projects that forced our hand to launch full time, which we were thankful for.

It's been a huge adventure and learning experience, and we're enjoying every moment.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
We've learned the importance of cash flow, sometimes the hard way. What hasn't killed us has only made us stronger, to borrow a cliche.

It's been a year of rapid growth, and we're trying to scale intelligently. We've grown from four partners to a team of nine in eight months, and we'll probably be adding two or three more employees by the end of the year.

We started out with a big app development and branding project called Mortgage Mapp, and also did some work with non-profits, including work with Rotary International and America's Foundation for Chess.

A few months in, after building out a sales team, we started seeing more opportunities with traditional marketplace companies, including work with Harkins Theatres, and the most notable being our new project with the Seattle Seahawks.

We're very pleased with the diversity of our current client roster, which is a healthy mix of both small and large non-profit and for-profit brands, and the pace of agency earnings is well-beyond our original expectations.

In addition to our great clients, we're starting to earn recognition in the community, which is amazing. We won an Silver ADDY for self promotion, digital advertising, and of course, we're up for Best New Agency with .net, which is a great honour.

Honestly, we feel like a kite in a hurricane sometimes, but it's a ton of fun.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
We have a set of core beliefs that inform everything we do. 

In short, they are:

  1. The means should justify themselves
  2. Joy carries the day
  3. We live and die together
  4. Good enough isn't good enough
  5. Walk into fear
  6. Stories matter
  7. Be kind, not nice
  8. What's the 11th?

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
We have a great hybrid of creative and interactive skills. Half our team specialises in interactive solutions while the other half comes from a traditional creative and branding background. Because of this, we're focused on leading with discovering a brand's story and then translating that into our design and interactive solutions. We've found our story-focused approach has been one of the greatest assets in landing accounts you'd think we have no business landing.

Additionally, we come from an in-house background, so we understand what our clients are looking for from an outside partner, and we have a measure of empathy for their experience.

Other things that set us apart:

    •    No one on our team has a mustache
    •    Only one of us wears a scarf all of the time
    •    We share offices with Tooth & Nail Records and Invisible Creature
    •    We like dive bars
    •    People can't pronounce our name
    •    We like the colour purple (the actual colour, though the movie is good too)
    •    We're not a sweat shop. Our families are as important to us as our business

fffunction

Clients: Roland UK, Viral Ad Network, The Access Group, Fauna & Flora International, Global Legal Group, MPme, Squarespace
Team size: Four
Some work you're proud of: We are really proud of the work we are doing with Roland UK to make its site responsive. We are doing a full redesign and, working through a complete UX process, we've started by auditing and user testing the current site. This allowed us to make very simple business cases for the need to redesign and also encourage Roland to implement a user-centred design rather than a product-centred approach that they currently have. Although a work in progress, we're confident the new site will be a success.

Working with Squarespace last year was really enjoyable. The latest release is designed to accommodate first time users up to professional API developers, and we were asked us to build a directory for Yountville, a town in the wine-growing region of the Napa Valley. After designing a responsive layout, we built and integrated custom templates into the JSON-powered system, creating a flexible, searchable directory and event-driven website.

I think the information architecture work we did for The Access Group was a massive challenge but a great experience for us. We had to make sense of a very complex product range of about 12 pieces of software with over 150 modules that made them up - then make that simple for the different user personas we'd established would be using the site so they found the right level of information for them. It really was a case of finding the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
Ben and I (Adam) had both been involved with a design co-operative in Bristol. We had both had similar experiences and while at Brooklyn Beta in 2011 we had a late night conversation where we both agreed that an agency model would work better for us, not a traditional agency model mind you!

We made this decision in November and by the end of January we had the name and the company registered. I was currently working as the technical director for Nixon Design, a great little agency based in Hayle, Cornwall.  In the meantime, we asked Pete if he would like to join us (to be fair we had been harassing Pete for a couple of years to go freelance). Pete joined us in January and he and Ben got started on the first fffunction project being the Brooklyn Beta responsive build.

While I was finishing up at Nixon, I met Russell and we worked together on an ecommerce build. It's during this time that I realised that Russell's skills would be invaluable to fffunction, so we asked him to join the team. Here we are a year later being asked to write some stuff for our nomination for best new agency. Amazing times.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
We've had a great year. We've worked with some great clients and learnt a huge amount about business. The biggest take away from this year has been that we have learnt not to stick to rigid processes to achieve great results. We can offer our clients solutions within their budgets and they can still be confident that they will get a great result.

We listen and encourage our clients to become part of the team. We have been nominated for best new agency of the year with yourselves. We built and launched Sassaparilla, an open source framework for starting a responsive project, which we've had a fantastic response to also.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
I think we have touched on that in the previous answer, but our philosophy really is form follows function. We are problem solvers and we really want to get to the heart of clients problems and solve them using the best means available to us. We encourage all of our clients to become part of the team and they help to make decisions along the way and have some ownership over the project and that builds great team relationships.

As a company philosophy we just want to work with people who are passionate about design, respect design and what it can do for their business and who are nice people. Its a simple philosophy that a good friend, Martin Nixon, used as his tool for qualifying clients. It works a treat so we use it too.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
I think it's our team and our varied skill sets but also the fact that we all have some similar skills. Every member of fffunction has some development skills and understands how the web is built and similarly we all have some design skills. It's this mix of skills and our individual skill sets that allow us to work together on projects and all bring something to the table with a solid understanding on how it can be implemented, designed and function.

We are huge advocates of rapid prototyping, testing and iteration and again we have access to great technology. But we also have kit that we can setup anywhere and do really quick testing and iteration. We offer solutions for everyone and if you have ever seen Aaron Draplin talk, you will know the Farmer John story. This is great advice. If you haven't, we highly recommend that you Google "Aaron Draplin talks" right now.

Active Theory

Clients: Tool of NA, Gentleman Scholar, Venables Bell & Partners
Team size: Three
Some work you're proud of: www.cloudsovercuba.com

.net: Tell us your story. How did you get started?
The three of us were working together, then one by one stopped to look for a new challenge, shortly after we joined forces to create Active Theory. With the industry shifting toward HTML5/JS it felt like there was a great opportunity for our skill set.

.net: What has happened in your first year of business?
A lot of cool stuff. A great feeling of independence mixed with uncertainty of what the next project is going to be keeps us on our toes. We've been fortunate enough to work with some great agencies on some awesome work.

.net: Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?
Don't take on work we can't get passionate about - and be cool to work with.

.net: What sets you apart from the rest?
We can survive for days on sardines and almonds.

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