Despite picking up a ninth Webby Award in June, interactive agency Poke is in no danger of resting on its laurels. Co-founder Iain Tait tells Nick Carson why it's crucial to keep taking creative risks.
During the dotcom downturn, six senior creatives from two respected digital agencies that had gone bust - Deepend and Oven Digital - joined forces to found Poke. "People said it was all over," recalls Iain Tait. "We believed it was just the beginning."
Seven years later, Tait reflects that the core principles they put onto paper at the time still hold true. "One comes to mind: we said that interactive work had developed a German sense of humour," he grins. "People get so obsessed with technology that they lose sight of making things interesting and quirky. We believe in the little touches that make things memorable and different."
It's clearly paid off, with a bulging awards cabinet that's just had two more Webbys added to it, alongside accolades from the likes of D&AD, Cannes and the Art Directors Club of New York. And the intimate, affable attitude that makes Poke's work so distinctive spreads to all parts of the business, based in London's media-rich Shoreditch area.
"In the past, we'd all been running companies rather than being hands-on with the creative work," Tait continues. "Poke works more like an architecture practice, where the principals are directly involved. We don't just wheel in the big guy for the pitch, only for him to exit and never be seen again. We'd rather be a high-quality boutique agency than a big, sprawling company, but we still deliver projects of considerable size."
One particularly ambitious project was Balloonacy, in response to a brief from UK mobile provider Orange to market its pay-as-you-go 'animal tariffs' to social media- savvy 16-24-year-olds. Among Poke's most regular clients, Orange has had its loyalty rewarded with a string of multi-award-winning campaigns - from a GPS-equipped bovine called Derek, star of Glastonbury Festival's Spot the Bull contest, to the much-loved 'never-ending webpage' for Orange Unlimited. Understandably, the client was expecting something zesty.
"It said in the brief - almost a throwaway line - that we should consider all types of social media: blogs, social networks, games and widgets," recalls Tait. "We knew there was a TV ad coming out that featured balloons in the shapes of the animals [raccoon, dolphin, canary and camel, each representing a different package of services]. When we combined social interaction, balloons and launching, it wasn't a million miles to get to the idea of a balloon race."
Of course, having the idea was the easy bit. Balloonacy's execution was to prove a logistical nightmare. Tait set standards high: paid-for overlays on a few partner sites simply wouldn't cut it. "We didn't just want a balloon game," he insists. "The race genuinely had to work across the internet. Real people with real sites had to want to take part. We pitched it to the client as being like the Tour de France - a town wants it to come to them, because it brings visitors and prosperity."
Tait confesses that while Orange immediately loved the concept of a balloon race, this notion of individual bloggers choosing to carry branded content was a much tougher sell. "Being a blogger myself, I know how exciting it can be to get an extra 500 visitors to your site in a day, but they didn't necessarily understand how powerful a motivation that is to small site owners. At one point they were considering making arrangements with paid-for sites, just in case."
As it turned out, Balloonacy clocked up a handsome 3.2 million aggregate views, with hundreds of independent bloggers applying to have the procession of bouncing orange balloons drifting across their sites. Surely proof positive of just how powerful a motivation a spike in traffic can be.
Technically the campaign was a massive challenge, with a large team working on the front- and back-end concurrently for three-and-a-half months in total. "It was a heavy project to deliver," confirms Tait. "We were prototyping in Papervision3D at the same time as working up designs, at the same time as coding. If people hadn't been excited, it would have failed. They went above and beyond the call of duty to get it done."
Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that with so many different platforms involved, comprehensive user testing was virtually impossible. "We could never have done enough," he argues. "Right the way through we came up against new problems. What happens when the race goes across a site that already has a Flash module there, or across a YouTube video? People were actually reporting issues while the race was on, and we had to go in and fix them.
"For something as big and complicated and far-reaching as this, we probably needed a small customer support team in place," Tait reflects, "or at least a blog. There was nowhere central for people to voice their problems. I'd spoken about it on my personal blog, and people were gravitating to the comments to ask about technical fixes. With hindsight, we'd definitely have done that differently.
"I'd also have taken longer. We had a hard deadline - which we actually missed by a week - to coincide with the TV campaign, but retrospectively there was less benefit in synchronising the two things than we'd first thought. It wouldn't have hurt us to launch three or four weeks afterwards."
Balloonacy's lead Flash developer Derek McKenna shares that sentiment, having designed a giant countdown timer into the pre-launch website to drum in the urgency of the deadline. "We were pretty focussed already, but that thing actually got downright scary when the days - then the hours - turned into zeroes, and we still had stuff to do," he smiles.
McKenna handled the client-side gameplay and the bulk of the user interface for the pre-race and race microsites, assisted by Gabriel Bucknall and Caroline Butterworth, who created the balloons and 3D race map, embeddable widgets and character animations respectively. "I used an open-source ActionScript framework called Lowra as the application foundation," explains McKenna, "and then we used Papervision for the 3D stuff."
Design-wise, too, the concept threw up some hurdles. "This was an event with a defined time frame, so it was quite a unique challenge in terms of visual communication," suggests senior art director Nicky Gibson. "You're aiming for something that's fun to take part in, so the cute aesthetic works brilliantly - just look at the Wii characters, Super Mario or Little Big Planet. Blow-up raccoons eating stars and warping through rainbows seemed like a good fit."
Clearly Balloonacy took its fair share of risks, and the whole campaign could have bombed spectacularly if one of them hadn't paid off. But Tait believes strongly that risk leads to innovation, and goes so far as to describe Poke as one big, smart, R&D department. Accordingly, the next project he mentions comes straight out of leftfield.
Inspired by an affection for baked goods fresh from the oven, BakerTweet was the brainchild of Nik Roope, Poke's co-founder and co-creative director, and a former colleague of Tait's from the aptly named Oven Digital. In a nutshell, it's a wall-mounted box that allows busy bakers to twist a dial to select what they've just baked, and at the touch of a button ping a Twitter message to the local pastry-loving community.
Taking two weeks from concept to completion, and then donated to the bakery across the road, BakerTweet was to Poke what an experimental personal project might be to a freelancer - a chance to diversify the portfolio and try out new ideas. "A few have bubbled up through the studio, and we've taken the time out to make them happen," explains Tait. "BakerTweet was one; Global RichList and Cock-a-Doodle are some others."
Beneath its innocuous outer casing, BakerTweet has colourful innards made with Arduino technology - an open-source electronic prototyping system pitched at artists, hobbyists and interactive designers with a penchant for playing around with circuit boards and flashing lights.
"Arduino and everything around it is so new that I often ran into issues that simply shouldn't have been there," says Andrew Zolty, the developer who put the idea into practice. "Nothing's been perfected, so sometimes things that worked one minute won't work the next.
"There's really no 'usual' thing an Arduino is used for," Zolty goes on. "It's mostly just people coming up with silly ideas in their bedrooms. I'm currently working on ways to connect Flash to physical devices."
So besides feeding the Shoreditch faithful with warm bread rolls, does Tait see any commercial applications for the device? "We've had queries," he can reveal. "A zoo wanted us to do KeeperTweet, to let visitors know when animals are being fed. But that's not necessarily what we want to do. BakerTweet just shows that in certain situations, devices like this can help you to interface with the web - and that Poke can help you build them."
Of course, as Tait points out, taking technological gambles in a non-commercial way provides a certain degree of insulation. "If it hadn't worked, the bakery hadn't paid for it so they couldn't legitimately get cross about it," he shrugs. "But both the risk and the reward was huge for them. Just look at the amount of coverage they've had off the back of it." Besides local London press, the story made it into papers and magazines around the world, including the Guardian, Wired and even The Hindustan Times.
So what happens when you push the limits of emerging technology in a live, high-value campaign? When a brief came up from Mother - the ad agency based directly below Poke - to add an interactive element to their above-the-line work with Coca-Cola's fruit drink brand Oasis, the creative cogs started whirring. Compared with the mainstream Coke family, Tait discloses, Oasis is much more open to off-the-wall creative solutions. Mother's controversial Cactus Kid creation saw a teenage girl eloping with a half-man, half-plant renegade who shared her dislike of water - and thus only drank Oasis. The campaign was actually banned by the ASA in late 2008 for condoning teenage pregnancy.
Unperturbed, Mother continued in the water-aversion vein and in May 2009 introduced Rubberduckzilla to the viewing public. A vengeful plastic duck with a colourful backstory, the central character was left in a bathtub for years being waterboarded under a constantly dripping tap, and is now wreaking complete havoc on the world in a delightfully lo-fipastiche of a Japanese monster film.
"For the interactive side, we decided to emphasise the bizarre, peculiar nature of Japanese culture," begins senior creative Jason Fox. He's facing a webcam, and on the laptop screen his head appears above a retro-style videogame cityscape. He lifts a sheet of paper above his forehead, printed with a simple graphic of a water droplet, and his head is instantly replaced on-screen by our anti-hero Rubberduckzilla.
"Wherever you look, you can control the crosshair," Fox explains, as he begins spitting all manner of death and destruction on the buildings below. "And you get more points if you blow up water objects." This project is one more notch on the bedpost for augmented reality (AR), an increasingly popular technology that links a 2D marker graphic in the real world with a 3D model on your screen, so you can interact with live video through your webcam.
But while various recent campaigns - including Nike T90, BMW Z4 and Bond blockbuster Quantum of Solace - have taken advantage of AR's futuristic feel, working with advanced 3D tracking in Flash really pushes the software to its limits. Fox highlights a browser plug-in by Total Immersion that can dramatically enhance the experience, but points out that it isn't yet in widespread use, and currently only works on certain platforms.
"Lots of people are doing AR at the moment, but they're not necessarily putting the technology in your hands in a way that's as exciting as it should be," Tait believes. "The client loved this approach - in fact, they didn't even believe it was possible to make it so interactive. It's a relatively unseen thing for a big brand like Coke to do something so fringe."
Surely if the client didn't believe it could be done, it was an uphill struggle to persuade them to splash hard cash on the concept? "It was most difficult to convince them that this was appropriate for their audience. Not everyone has a webcam, so not everyone can immediately interact with it," he reasons. "But you only really need a fringe of people - even if you don't use it directly, you can still be impressed by seeing others do it."
'Fail cheaply and fail often' has become something of a mantra among digital agencies in the last few years. Compared to the high-budget world of above-the-line advertising, it's generally easier to take creative risks online, because the penalties are often that much smaller if it all goes wrong.
Taking that mantra too literally and gambling everything on a high-stakes account could be commercial suicide, but Tait recommends a healthy balance between leftfield experiments like BakerTweet, and more calculated risks in the course of a big campaign like Balloonacy.
"A few years ago, lots of digital agencies were setting up dedicated R&D departments," he remembers. "We didn't want to do that. I think R&D should be the responsibility of everyone."