25 February 2009

Major design review on Belgian newssites

Personal insights and learnings on designing portals and verticals.

This screenshot is an 'unpublished' design of one of the major Belgian newssites.

I tend to write long posts on topics I want to cover thoroughly. But I know some people don't like that, or have the time to read them. So I'd like to start with a small wrap of my most important remarks on designing newssites, portals and verticals.

• minimalism tends to swamp your content when the ads are strong, noisy and colorful.
• design within 950x600, in other words: don't make people scroll horizontally, the dimensions of most used monitors are still at 1024x768
• don't let elements of the main navigation menu disappear under the fold. Yes the fold is still considered at 600px from the top (see previous topic)
• visually guide people to the most important features, don't unisex all buttons for the sake of consistency. They need this guidance.
• where's the interaction? Few portals are equipped with features to make good articles rise to the homepage. Most available features are only included in footers of the full stories, not the short ones. I want to browse and favorite quickly and read full stories later.
• give advertisers value for investments. Don't bury the adspace under the fold or blankly out of the design, it looks shitty and people won't click it. i hate banners too but they raise money to both parties.
• big images are nice but don't let them suck up all the space on your homepage. Give larger versions of the image on secondary pages.
• don't swamp the navigation with subsections! (but of course, that's a remarks for the editors, not the designers)
• to me everything need to be pixelperfect, yes, so don't ever use Helvetica as a screenfont, thanks.

Why this post?
Recently GVA en HBVL renewed their websites. GVA and HBVL are two local newspapers by a publishing house called Concentra. Now, a renowned Belgian blogger, reveals an unpublished screenshot of the redesign of a major Belgian website called 'De Standaard Online'. Though nowadays I'm mostly occupied thinking out e-strategies and broader advertising campaigns, I'm still very intrigued by usability, design and information architecture as to me these should be hand in hand with the ideas of communication concepts.

I fell in love with usability reading "Don't make me think". Grew mature with understanding usability by working on the architecture of a major vertical called Hebbes.be. I structured and designed the portal, under guidance of Jonathan Detavernier, when I worked at Snow by LG&F.

Full throttle and review on all major Belgian newssites.

GVA en HBVL renewed their websites.
I never read either one of these papers but the agency I work for creates direct mailing and interactive promotion campaigns to push new readers into buying these papers, so naturally the redesign caught my attention. The redesign was done by Netlash. Ever since the launch my fingers had been itching to post an article on this topic but due to a lack of time I hadn't so far. During the first week of launch the website had a link labeled "we would like to hear about your feedback on the redesign of this website". Unfortunately the space for posting that feedback was restricted to 300 characters. And for some reason I'm unable to find that link again now, guess they must have buried it.

Although GVA and HBVL are two newspapers targeting a local crowd still they look almost exactly the same, why is that? In my opinion they should take a clear visual distance from each other. Antwerp is not Limburg! Talking to a different audience must result in a different design. I understand the papers want to relate to one another but still the skin should be visually differentiated. The images used for the major article are far to big. Using an image as wide as 515px is literally killing all other content and it brings no extra value to the overall look at all. The font was too tiny but they've solved that, thanks to reader feedback I guess.
Also, the portfolio image of Netlash shows that the original design was intended to split the center column passing the fold. Above the fold the main article would be accompanied with a series of less important but pushed articles on the right. Passing the fold, or below the fold, the articles would spread and use the entire width of the center column without using a decent divider to split from that fold, resulting in an unclear usage of the images in the articles below the fold. Because of this the images of the articles below the fold could be mistaken as from other articles. Luckily this has been altered in the currently used design.
I also tend to as myself why the skyscraper is out of sight when I'm browsing my 1024x768 monitor. Why they've introduced a huge IMU (466x466) further down, splitting the content like a hellraiser. And why there is no focus on the local news as this is their proposition. Or have they changed being a newspaper by the people, for the people and with the people?

'De Standaard Online' alpha.
Yesterday Michel Vuijlsteke posted a screenshot of an unpublished design of 'De Standaard Online'. 'De Standaard' is a major Belgian newspaper, Michel Vuijlsteke a consultant (information architect) at Namahn. I recall being contacted by Patrick, for participating on this redesign, somewhere between August and September of 2007. Patrick had great plans on redesigning and restructuring the newspapers their company, Corelio, was publishing. Since Corelio has launched 24.be. 24.be supposed to be an aggregator of newscontent based on NetVibes. I heard recently that the plug was pulled, and thus 24.be no longer gets pushed. It never ever really got off. Now, about 18 months after I first heard of the planned redesign of 'De Standaard Online' a first design is on a loose. I kinda doubt the strength of this so called alpha version considering the time invested researching and designing this vertical. But hey, these things can take a long time to get up off their feet within an organization the size of Corelio. It just crossed my mind that this post could as well be a deliberate leak just to get some feedback from the designer-groundswell.

Michel Vuijlsteke argues that this design proposal looks like a "NYTimes Light". I feel him in this statement but still I'd like to give the designer of this so called "alpha" some credit. Though I miss the skyscraper and the leaderboard being pasted in, I like the way the navigation is build up from the top down. Not using a vertical column but few horizontal rows that guide your through, nifty. This is not quite the case over at NYTimes, which uses that vertical column to stash some topics that might just be very important to me. Of course all credit should be going to the NYTimes, who have no doubt heavily influenced lots of media-companies on what approach to choose for marketing their papers well. Next to that it must be admitted that NYTimes keeps trying to innovate in many ways.
Why do I miss the 3-ad (= combination of a skyscraper, leaderboard and imu on one page) here? Not because I'm in advertising or because I love banners, no, not at all. I just know they might prove to be very important as they can generate a good income for the publishers, plus they add up to the value of bringing the information online instead of jealously keeping it away from the internet. The advantage NYTimes has is of course the fact that the banner-ads on their home-page are valued higher which results in a smaller size banner that still pays off. In Belgium we have to plaster the place with 3-ads to pull of some conversion. Yes, we all agree that it looks horrible but until further notice we're in for large size banner-ads.

Anyway the alpha definitely overrules the old one. The old one is too orange to me. Displays a horrible vertical navigation that is way to bulky And it doesn't give me enough articles to scan at the same time. I hate scrolling remember.
In my opinion every journalist should have it's own blog under the flagship of it's publisher. this way they can push their articles individually and create specific value for readers and advertisers, that is if you are especially interested in a certain style of writing or a kind of niche news — specific topics.

So @mvuijlst, @bartvanbelle, @talkingheads and @Pietel ... What's your opinion on De Standaard Online Alpha design?
- I would like to see some guidance by color.
- The 'most read', 'most recommended' and 'most recent' is a plus no doubt. certainly the significant space it gets on a 'topshelf'.
- I'd use more smaller inserts of some articles to enrich the provided content above the fold. For example I'd skip the U2 picture and put two article links there.
- I'd add sharing and bookmarking options on the articles of the homepage.
- I'd make it more visually clear that the 2 vertical navigation bars under the logo relate to one another.
- I'd push my search up to the top of the page creating extra space where the search is now.
- I'd use clear dividers separating the articles from one another.
- I'd label the pushed articles clearly so I know in what section they belong if I scan the homepage briefly.
- I'd try to experiment with mashup-widgets to get live-feeds, tweets or streams from my editors and journalists to the homepage, or a subsection.
- Would be nice if the 3-ad would match the entity of the content and design, and not be 'on-top' or outside of it.

'De Morgen' by far.

To me 'De Morgen' should be awarded for being the best serving online newssource in Belgium when it comes down to design, usability and interactivity.
The articles are clearly labeled on topic. One blink of an eye can tell me whether the article is on "economie" or "binnenland", should be expanded in my opinion but they're there. Also, the stream of recently posted articles has received a clearly important and readable spot within the entity of the content. Maybe the pushed article's image is too large but it doesn't quite bother me here because a lot of the other content shows. Too bad I have to scroll horizontally to get a full view of content and ads when I'm surfing 1024x768. They use a sharing button like most newssites nowadays but they nicely keep the other features tied to each other in the footer of the article. 'De Standaard Online' for example uses their sharing button in the footer and other features next to he header. I tend to find that a bit confusing. Just fyi: 'De Morgen' uses the AddThis for sharing, others like 'De Standaard Online' use AddToAny. They're basically the same. The horizontal navigation is a plus to me.

HLN: big as in butt ugly.
I tend to skip the review on HLN but I can't. Why can't I? It is simply the biggest one around. Not in size of course, but in traffic volume. I recall HLN being the biggest newspaper, and news site, in terms of readers, for a long time. Before that it must have been Skynet or MSN, but in my opinion they cheated a bit by installing their page as the default homepage upon installation of Belgacom or Windows.

HLN, you can't be running high with excitement, or into good taste if you like the design they used to skin they're content. No doubt the ugliest portal template I've ever seen for a 'vortal' with nationwide usage.
It is wrong. Top down wrong. The colors, the crispness, the structure, the architecture (maybe not quite, as people tend to find their ways in), the loudness of shouting out the news loud and clear, is wrong. But who am I to judge the design of a newssite that attracts most readers in Belgium. Dear Persgroep, don't be mad at me, please :)
In stead of going on and on about how I hate the HLN design let me point to a Norwegian newsportal.

SOL.no is the biggest news website in Norway. Their site, at first, looks as horrible as HLN but in fact isn't quite so. As a matter of fact, to me it is a very slick portal giving you instant access to many articles touching a broad range of topics. The reader is immediately introduced to plenty of info without scrolling AND the ads are nicely incorporated by the unity of the content. Advertisers are offered a wide myriad of possibilities for advertising and marketing their communication concepts, products or brands there without having to push away the information that actually attracts the reader. Win win I would say. By the way their style sheets are set to overflow:hidden so there is no horizontal scrolling for users on monitors smaller then 1024x768. A role model.
Sol.no got renowned for their banner campaign that struck like a meteorite at the Cannes Festival in 2008. The concept is as simple as it’s ingenious: the banner content changes continuously, thanks to an especially created program. A copywriter, whose task is to animate the banner, writes or draws on a pad and the information is transferred to the banner on the screen, exactly as it is and in real time. You can imagine displaying a banner with live feedback on the current content of the site you are browsing tends to catch your attention and will get rewarded by your click.

BBC for you and me.

The modular system of the BBC newsportal is my all-time favorite amongst the newssites. It is open to participation, suits my needs if I really want it to, and feels very intuitive to every profile of reader. Of course they didn't have to struggle pasting in a 3-ad and they haven't managed to entirely remodel the content into this system. The homepage links to the old grid of the BBC newsportal.

Of course I would be a dork for excluding this very nice papervision designed example by MSNBC, Spectra.

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24 February 2009

Make money with Google AdSense

I've filed my resignation yesterday. Ever since I've added the Google AdSense engine on my blog money came floating in like water through a broken dam. There are numerous Success Stories to prove that I'm not the only one making tons of dollars with the AdSense system.

Some rich bloggers make millions and still they don't have the dignity to answer poor bloggers' questions. Shame on you rich bloggers. You should help others... @bnox for example recently tweeted: "Tired of questions about how much money you make with your blog?". So selfish.

Little disclaimer

It's Nice That publishes 1st magazine

I've been following It's Nice That for quite some time now. I've started following It's Nice That by spotting this article. It's Nice That simply posts images on newly found and mostly/sometimes interesting artists, designers and illustrators and writes a small paragraph on what the post is all about. Informative and, to me, a great source of inspiration.

It's Nice That has been publishing 1 year now. To celebrate that it publishes a booklet with their reap of the most interesting topics and posts. I'd been thinking about doing something likewise for a while but I just haven't found the time to do it. Making of wrap of 3 years of posting is of course a whole other ballgame so I've let it be, though I have thought of pouring my top ten articles in a .pdf... if only time would be on my side.

It's Nice That

23 February 2009

About: social media platforms and sharing applications

A lot of people (friends, family, clients, peers, contacts, mates, colleagues, superiors, etc.) tend to ask me about what is this or what is that when it comes down to 'social media'. To newbies it is like they've just been awakened by some terrifying animal. To regulars it is like they've discovered gold. Some go talking mad with web 2.0 mumbo jumbo and others give long explanations and examples about what to do with these emerging and established services.

I hate it when people go raving about a new service or platform, though I admit doing it it myself sometimes. It's not about this service or that new platform. It is not about whether it is new or groundbreaking. It's about what you can do with, or more importantly how you can use it to create value to you, your friends or relatives, your brand, your company etc. If it doesn't bring anything to the table, just let it be. I'd like to help some people to get back down to earth when they are talking about social media services and applications. They are mere tools for sharing and interacting. They enable the possibility to keep up with what your friends do, they enable participation. They are not the essence of what is going on. You are, remember.

So next is a list about about. It is about all there has to be said about the most renown services in the realm of social media. Of course there are thousands and thousands of platforms to be listed, one more famous than another, but to me these are the babies!

To me Delicious is just a favorites folder.
Delicious by Google description:
The world's leading social bookmarking service (formerly del.icio.us).
Delicious by Delicious about:
Delicious allows you to bookmark a page and add tags, or descriptive keywords, to identify it. You can then share your del.icio.us page with colleagues and your saved bookmarks will be grouped with similary tagged pages from around the web.

To me Facebook is just a diary.
Facebook by Google description:
Facebook is a social utility that connects people with friends and others who work, study and live around them. People use Facebook to keep up with friends,...
Facebook by Facebook about:
Facebook gives people the power to share and makes the world more open and connected. Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet.

To me Flickr is just a photo album.
Flickr by Google description:
Flickr is almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world. Show off your favorite photos and videos to the world, ...
Flickr by Flickr about:
Flickr - almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world - has two main goals: 1. We want to help people make their content available to the people who matter to them. 2. We want to enable new ways of organizing photos and video.

To me Friendfeed is just an aggregator.
Friendfeed by Google description:
Allows you to build a customised feed of made up of content your friends on other collaborative sites have shared, including news articles, photos, ...
Friendfeed by Friendfeed about:
FriendFeed enables you to keep up-to-date on the web pages, photos, videos and music that your friends and family are sharing. It offers a unique way to discover and discuss information among friends. FriendFeed automatically imports shared stuff from sites across the web, so if your friend favorites a video on YouTube or uploads a photo on Flickr, you get a link and a thumbnail of the video in your feed. FriendFeed makes all the sites you already use a little more social.

To me LastFM is just a music library.
LastFM by Google description:
The world’s largest online music catalogue, with free music streaming, videos, photos, lyrics, charts, artist biographies, concerts and internet radio.
LastFM by LastFM about:
Every track you play will tell your Last.fm profile something about what you like. It can connect you to other people who like what you like - and recommend songs from their music collections and yours too.
When you recommend some music to a friend, or you tag it, or you write about it - even just listening to it - you shift the song's importance on the site. It'll be recommended to different people, because you've listened to it. It'll move up our music charts and maybe more people will hear it because you thought it was good.

To me MySpace just sucks.

To me Twitter is just a messaging service.
Twitter by Google description:
Twitter is a free social messaging utility for staying connected in real-time.
Twitter by Twitter about:
Twitter is a unique approach to communication and networking based on the simple concept of status. What are you doing? What are your friends doing—right now? With Twitter, you may answer this question over SMS or the Web and the responses are shared between contacts.

To me YouTube is just a moviebox.
YouTube by Google description:
Share your videos with friends, family, and the world.
YouTube by YouTube about:
YouTube is the leader in online video, and the premier destination to watch and share original videos worldwide through a Web experience. YouTube allows people to easily upload and share video clips on www.YouTube.com and across the Internet through websites, mobile devices, blogs, and email. Everyone can watch videos on YouTube. People can see first-hand accounts of current events, find videos about their hobbies and interests, and discover the quirky and unusual. As more people capture special moments on video, YouTube is empowering them to become the broadcasters of tomorrow.

Ok, I knew you 'experts' wouldn't be satisfied so here's an extra list of services I'm in on, happy now?
digg - furl - magnolia - netvibes - picasa - stumbleupon - tumblr - shelfari - swurl - hyves - wishlistr - commandshift3 - rssmeme - visualiseus - slideshare - hashtags - technorati - seesmic - twitturly - identica - mybloglog - garagetv - netlog - curbly - vimeo - scrnshots

18 February 2009

Change in advertising

#update: following Famous on Twitter is @FamousBrussels, not @Famous.
Thank you Goedles

Tim & Joeri of Famous.be
Tim and Joeri., originally uploaded by Pieter Baert.

This morning, Famous has released a creative inauguration speech on advertising. The 'creative inauguration' is published on a sub-page of the Famous website. A widget is offered to implement the text onto blogs and other digital media, so it is made portable, nice. But the entire text was published in the form of a ticker which scrolls just too fast to be comfortable for reading. Therefor I posted it here in this post. The text is a very nice example of creative writing. Would you wonder. Tim Driesen is Co-Creative Director @FamousBrussels, an agency renowned for obtaining many creative awards through the years. Though last year they've announced not to participate to creative award-shows anymore. I thought that was a joke at first, but it wasn't.

Former Creative Director Paul Wauters left Belgium to train new Creative Directors for the TBWA Group in Italy. And so Tim and Joeri will take his place as Creative Director team. Tim and Joeri aren't new to the Famous crew. They'd worked there for over 5 years before moving to Mortierbrigade about 2 years ago. So now they're back at the agency that helped them grow to become Belgium star team in advertising. Tim and Joeri got famous when the agency was still called LG&F. They struck numerous creative awards including many Gold Lions.

My guess is that Tim and Joeri will introduce a new young drive of enthusiasm @FamousBrussels and soon will take part at bigger competitions like they did before. I briefly worked with them when I was at Snow by LG&F, they're great, good fellas. To insiders they're also know as 'the usual suspects'.


“My fellow creatives: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust advertisers have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our creative ancestors.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Advertising is at war, against a far-reaching network of scepticism and fear. Our creativity is badly weakened, a consequence of irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare advertising for a new age. Freshness of mind has been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our productions are too costly, our art schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use or don’t use our creativity threaten our agencies.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our industry — a nagging fear that advertising’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation of advertisers must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, fellow creatives — they will be met.

In reaffirming the greatness of our industry, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of the rich and famous. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and creativity. These men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked until their heads almost exploded so that we might become better creatives. They saw advertising as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions.

This is the journey we continue today. We serve the most prosperous, powerful brands on Earth. These multinationals may be less productive than when this crisis began. But our minds are no less inventive, our services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our creativity remains undiminished. But our time of standing still, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking the advertising business.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of our industry calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new ads, but to lay new foundations for fresh creativity. We will build more and far better websites. We will restore television and print advertising to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise CRM’s quality and lower its cost. And we will transform our art schools and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that advertising today cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this industry has already done; what creative men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the same arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our advertising is too creative or too dull, but whether it works — whether it helps products to be sold and brands to be made heroes. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, campaigns will end. And those of us who manage the advertisers’ budgets will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between advertisers and their agencies.

To the advertiser’s world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those marketing directors who seek to sow conflict, or blame their companies' ills on advertising — know that consumers will judge you on what you can build, not what your agency can sell.

For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

For as much as the advertising industry can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the people in every agency upon which our industry relies. It is the selflessness of workers who would rather work long hours than see their company go down which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the creative team’s courage to start all over again, but also an account handler’s willingness to question the client’s demands, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and creativity, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and research — these things are old. These things are true. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every person working in advertising, that we have duties to ourselves, our industry, and creativity in general, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of working in advertising.

In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our trainees' trainees that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of creativity and delivered it safely to future generations.”

Tim Driesen, Creative Director – Famous.be

17 February 2009

Kinepolis: the extra mile

The extra mile, indicating the formidable length of my post on the e-strategy of Kinepolis, was perhaps a bridge to far what concerns webcopy. "Overnewsed but uninformed" totally fits the Zeitgeist. While nosing around on the internet you've probably noticed that often lots of people are covering one specific subject without passing on founded knowledge on the matter. Let alone giving insides or writing down something nobody else would possibly be able to put down in words. Luckily this wasn't entirely the case on this particular event. We had passed a great deal of 'bashing about', pissing on Kinepolis, repeatedly echoing each other on what was wrong with Kinepolis. Now, thanks to some fantastic bloggers and the therefor crucial event the echo-chamber had morphed and fresh thoughts had been released. "Overnewsed but uninformed" was my motto for digging really deep into the backgrounds that jumped this conversation. All that to share with you a deeper understanding of what is going and how this all came into place.

I know reading on the web isn't quite as inviting as reading a book. In the zone untenable by my own enthusiasm. The post was loaded with several sidestories and inside information leading away from the core idea that particular post was messaging.

Having finished writing it already dawned on me but I was to eager to hit the 'publish' button so I did. During writing I changed my status on LinkedIn into "writing a book on the e-strategy of Kinepolis, the largest host of movietheaters in Belgium", so I was very well aware of the fact that the post was stretching out that extra mile not a soul would reach to read. This morning I received an e-mail of friend and colleague Pietel. He informed me that he was interested in reading the story but pointed out that I should stick to 1 idea per post. He suggested extracting sidestories and indirect information on the topic into different posts, splitting the story, making it easier for readers to gain access to the original post, core of the topic within the vivid conversation roaring about Kinepolis at the moment.

@Pietel: you are right, having to scroll about 3 seconds to meet the bottom of the post, about 7 times an entire screen down the fold of a standard browser-window (1024*768), is a little pushing daisies.

Thus, this has been taken care of. The original post was split up into eatable pieces of blogwriting. Some of you might argue that the core post is still too long but I didn't want to alter the work I submitted on this topic.

I hope it serves your cause and treats your time with pleasing aftermath. Hereby the list of posts embracing my thoughts, observations and insights about a recently started conversation on 'Kinepolis':
» Think of it as Jujitsu. The ins and outs of Kinepolis' latest e-strategy. (original post, insights and background on the conversation)
» How it all started
» Calling in the bloggers
» Martial arts
» Marrying an agency
» Who is Druppels
» To media or not to media
» Join the conversation

Kinepolis: join the conversation

Please join the conversation at:
Tales of drudgery and boredom, Een scheet in een fles, Dipfico's daily, Blogging the news, An unexpected view to the world, Verwarring troef, Blogging in Balegem or De gustibus est disputandum.

More conversations can be browsed by using the widget displayed next, or you use a watchlist to monitor new entries.

Kinepolis: To media or not to media

Today, it is often debated whether it is better to use mainstream, or must I use 'traditional', media or the so called social media online for getting your message through. Though the question is not which is better, the question should rather be: what are you trying to achieve, what goals have you set, what targets are you chasing. Social media is all about talking, establishing a relationship with that customer, rather than just saying "here I am, have you seen me?". Social media can have their value, but talking is not always appropriate for a company or a brand. It all depends let's say, the big change here is that now, other than before, companies are choosing. Choosing whether to push, talk, interact, engage, listen or ... shout.

Kinepolis: Who is Druppels

Druppels, Frédéric De Vries, started working at ProximityBBDO October 2007. First as a Strategist completing a special unit called 'Innovation'. A unit created to guard and amplify the level of creative output of the freshly started merger called ProximityBBDO. It existed of 4 specialists. This unit worked as a satellite orbiting the giant hairball, functioning a plug-and-play unit engaging with the different departments inside the organization. This unit could be referred to as 'a wild-card team'. Druppels creative companions were Adriaan van Looy and Wim Provoost. Frédéric De Vries, former These Days and DigiPoint, is now a Creative Director at ProximityBBDO. Which explains the lack of time for writing decent studied blog-posts like this one. I have to add that killer Aikido training, a fast car, barking dog and biting new girlfriend also add up on his personal time-sheet. I report to "Fré" directly, as he is responsible guarding the Online Art Directors at our company.

Kinepolis: marrying an agency

Not too long ago, Kinepolis chose ProximityBBDO as their sparring partner for talking to their customers. Talking yes. By now most companies have understood that pushing the message through mainstream media doesn't always bring value for money. Kinepolis currently owns and hosts 23 cinema complexes in Belgium, France, Spain, Poland and Switzerland, and employs about 1600 people.

Kinepolis: Martial arts

Jujitsu is mostly known for it's key attribute: turning the attacker's force against him. Some amongst the martial arts experts would argue that the martial art of Aikido is better known for this attribute but that's not quite the point of this article. Of course there's no need to tell you that the force of this new era is that of the consumer. Consumers have the power, consumers are in charge now, no need to keep repeating that. Important is this: consumers can raid on companies whenever they have the feeling they have been done harm, just like that, as long as they get support from others, as long as there is an audience they'll be listened to. So let me stop boring you and move on to the story here.

Kinepolis: calling in the bloggers

"Druppels welcomed the bloggers, together with the Adhese team, as they arrived at the scenery.

Tapping the Groundswell
Robin showed up first. Shortly after the majority of the invited influentials had walked through the door and the drinks were ready to be served the cosy chatter amongst the bloggers started. The crowd knows each other. It's been years since I've had this awkward feeling of being a newbie. I comfort myself with some statistics, namely, that I knew 5 out of 40 attendees. Recognized more than 50% by recalling their faces from flashing avatars. And had found least one somebody with which talking was as if I'd knew him for years, knowing how to handle a
Westside accent has some advantages after all. Bob's nerves were almost untenable. I think be that time he could have given that presentation upside down, he was totally in on it. Bob, Bob Claeys, heir to the Kinepolis heritage. Bob, Kinepolis board-member and by far it's most enthusiastic evangelist. This guy breaths Kinepolis, lives Kinepolis, is (partly) Kinepolis. He would tell the invited crowd about how this company had grown, about their strengths and recent investments in innovative technologies. He was sweating. Although Bob did a great job on bringing an story with flair and lots of juice, still the bloggers were left clueless about their reason being there. Clueless about why their precious time was being occupied. Clueless about why they had been served free drinks, a grim impatience started to arise in the tone of voice of the comment spread through the Twitter services. Bob was talking too long and too loud... A small break came about right on time and the audience moved to a less 'listen to me' kind of space. Food was served, well food. Some bloggers obviously expected more than finger-food and popcorn. The story continued and a new face stood before the gang of online frontiers. The one and only CEO of Kinepolis was ready to take on the beating if necessary, Eddy Duquenne, a brave man. It was time to tune out from the fairy tale of history and wake up. Eddy had a calm, charismatic and unnatural appearance of authority. It was as if he owned the placed. This wasn't a man under siege, he must have been hypnotized. No. He was there, feet to the ground, listening. He explained briefly why he had invited everybody present. He explained their new strategy of listening and talking and shortly after moved to the Q&A. Most Belgian readers amongst you undoubtedly can recall the painful moments plenty of speakers confront when speaking before a Belgian audience, silence. No questions. But this wasn't the case at all. The audience didn't jump him like an outrage mob, the questions were neatly lined up. Time was exploited to raise hands, ask questions and change thoughts. Eddy wasn't being to defensive at all. He left a divine impression.

That question
Then someone popped that one question: "why is the founder of that Facebook group called Kinepolis gaat erover not invited to this talk? He is the reason why we are here, right?".
Eddy smiled and sat his ass down. "Well, as a matter of fact, no, that is not why you are here. At least not entirely. Yes, he is the reason why we have shifted gear in what were working on. But it is not 'because' of him you are here. You are here mainly because we want to start talking with our customers. And we have not invited him because we wanted to emphasize the fact that he is merely the reason for us to shift gears. Also, he has blanked us out, swamping us with negativity and we want to push ourself in the right direction without being defensive, without counterattacking. We want to focus on these new pathways we have chalked down and start off with a clean street. We want to let our audience, our customers, know that we are here from now on. We want to get the message out that we are listening. We took note of every post, every line, written on
the the wall of that Facebook-group and we are working on some of those demands as we speak. I know we haven't been there in the past. And I know we aren't there at the present. But I know we are going to be there in the future. Yes, we are going to remodel our website. Yes, we are going to grease our online ticketing. Of course we want them to be cheaper (instead of the way around few months ago) than the tickets you buy 'offline'. No, we don't want to push the price of our tickets to an outrages amount. It keeps some people from coming to our venues as well remember. But hey, Rome wasn't build in one day. We are an organization tackling a broad range of issues and these things need time. We have to take it slow, one step at a time, think things over sometime, but rest assured we will go on.
" — wooaw, I mean I was blown away. I myself'd never expect him to be this blunt, honest, with the crowd. Chapeau! And sure, the price of Coke and popcorn bought from the shops inside the venues is out of line but hey what's new. If the Coke is to expensive don't drink it. If your children are nagging for popcorn till your skull starts to open up, give them an asswhoopin' or get a nanny and tell her "no popcorn". Get them a better education or tell them popcorn kills. If the tickets are too expensive, don't go there (sorry that's a joke, go there just skip one meal ;)) But of course, Kinepolis has quite a monopoly on housing movie-theaters in our country, I agree. On the other hand, they do have the best seatings and offer. If you want to seduce a new lover and it works, it is worth the money, right? And if it's not you can always try and hook on some colleagues.

Flawless victory
With Eddy answering a dozen questions flawlessly something dawned to me. I was thinking this guy should start writing a blog on his own. No doubt his analytics would skyrock shortly after the release. After all who wouldn't want to hear news from the captain himself. He has something to say, he has the authority and he has an audience that is eager to talk. But. I wasn't actually there on invitation. I was on his side. And I wasn't fully on top of things concerning the development of the relationship between the agency I work for and his company, Kinepolis, our client. Would I be out of line? I was already out of line for tweeting that the speaker was to loud. Would I be out of line asking about his thought on this, let alone proposing him to do so. I must have bitten my tongue somewhere between 20 and 30 times, my lips were burning. I admit to not be being in control of my enthusiasm in participating and raised my hand. Eddy looked at me, clueless of the fact that I was actually a ProximityBBDO employee. I blended in naturally. Flanked by Dominiek and Goedles on my left and Houbi on my right. I started activating the small zone in my brain that is used for talking: "You answer flawless to each one of these questions. Why don't you take on write a blog of your own? I can imagine a blog written by somebody of your authority would undoubtedly be warmly welcomed by your customers." He answered with confidence, calm and self-assured: "Oh I will. Soon my friend, soon. We're working on it." He meant, I, in the near future. Funny. I was satisfied. A client that leveled. Wonderful.

Kinepolis: how it all started

A Misty winter morning
Druppels vividly recalls that moment: "It was misty winter morning. We were staring at each other from the far end of the table. We all gathered in the Moutstraat, Ghent. It wasn't quite a celebration. The room was filled with a cold but damp air. We were at war, or rather, we were under siege, big time. It wasn't the economic crisis we were tortured by, no, it was the masses. Present were all Kinepolis board-members and 3 envoys of the agency. To Kinepolis it was Pearl Harbor, not single soul was spared." — @mvuijst: Druppels has frozen his writing activities due to a lack of time.
» Who is Druppels

Back to that chilly winter morning in Ghent. "A sigh, a thousand blinks and 4 gallons of coffee later action was undertaken. Yet, it took some more gatherings to get straight on the final plans but a brand new e-strategy was written. It was an ambitious one. A grand revival. Yes, the wisdom of the poker-gods is to be learned by heart; comebacks exist! We were scrambling all the possible guts a board could possibly think of and stood up facing 45000 joiners of a group that was based upon nothing but to destroy us."

Kinepolis: Think of it as Jujitsu

Think of it as Jujitsu
Martial arts]

The ins and outs of Kinepolis' latest e-strategy.

Kinepolis, originally uploaded by Pieter Baert.

To Kinepolis it had always been about shouting, talking without listening, assuming not asking. So when we sat around the table with Kinepolis for the first time, somewhere last year, we decided to take it one step at a time. [» How it all started] It seemed obvious we should start with listening. Luckily Kinepolis had build up a huge amount of contacts in their database (so sorry, I'm very bad at remembering numbers but I'd say like 400000 or so, could be lots more, I'm modest, if you know the number please comment) so asking questions would be to hard to get our 'new behavior' going. A large questionnaire was compiled listing a wide range of questions. The questionnaire was mainly focused on topics that concern the satisfaction of the visiting customer. Evidently this questionnaire is key for setting out the new goals Kinepolis and ProximityBBDO wanted to strive for. [» Marrying an agency] Gathering info on what the customer desires of a cinema and entertainment experience today is crucial for starting to build around the axis most important for creating a better Kinepolis. After all Kinepolis has been about
innovative drive and a customer-friendly approach from the start, so they say. The response rate on the questionnaire was satisfying, allow me to even say huge, enormous (again, damn numbers, comment-section please). That info is being scrambled as we speak. Of course just sending out a questionnaire and asking people "what would you do if you ran a cinema" isn't quite enough to get the ball on fire. It was the tipping point of the behavior change though. A green light to start engaging with the new way things work nowadays. Now the motor was up and running the wheel had to be grabbed and seat belt buckled up.

Next, without throwing out a bait, we would listen. Listen to what people are saying to each other about the Kinepolis venues, about the cinema experience, about how they live the entertainment. And where, of all places, could we hear that story best, indeed: the internet. The chance of picking up a conversation about Kinepolis by just walking up the street is nearly nonexistent. So we were designated to using watchlists, searchbots and alertservices for finding out where the conversations were taking place. The results, yes I'm honest from the top down, were rather negative. And
some conversations didn't just sit there being negative waiting to be discovered, no.
Some conversations were marching on, upwards, raving like a mad bull at a red blanket. I recall one night in a place called
the Matrix ...

A group called Facebook
Someone had started a new group on Facebook someone who didn't quite like the Kinepolis management. The group was called "Kinepolis gaat erover" (= Kinepolis crossed a line). By that time the group was supported by about 5000 fans, or joiners. By the end of that day the tribe doubled, vastly expanding, spreading like a lean mean virus. Kinepolis was 'attacked' by the power of the masses and they were not ready to talk back. As you know we were at the embryonal stage of sending out a bloody questionnaire. 2 days later, the founder (
David Callens), starred nationwide spitting out about what is wrong with the management of Kinepolis. Criticizing the organization top down, stripping it from it's pride, throwing all members of the board into a roaring ocean of bad news without being offered a life jacket. [» Who is Druppels]
David had a point on some topics, others were a shout out of unfounded madness but clearly a desperate cry for attention. Kinepolis had to start listening and it did. But, Kinepolis wasn't ready to take on this massive swing. And remained ducked down for the time being. Left, standing, out there, in the middle of nowhere. Naked. Beaten.

Spandex and speakers
In the eighties Kinepolis was a huge success. Mainly due to their innovative approach introducing THX Dolby Surround. "The audience is listening" was their motto those days. Nowadays they are bound to learn the hard way that "the audience is participating". Of course we were eager to help them out as it is as hard on us to see clients suffering as it is to mothers hearing their babies cry.

The tactics?
Calling in the bloggers]
Gather all (most...) influential bloggers in town (Belgium). Boys (and girls) with thousands of readers, an audience. Amongst which, lots of Kinepolis lovers and Facebook members. Tell them the story of that one local cinema that grew to be the international enterprise? it is now. Tell them the truth, be open and honest. don't hide, take it like a man and above all "don't get defensive". Listen. be transparent about yourself and your company and above all be human. Act normal. Talk. After all, it can't get any worse.

Nothing to lose.
The result was a cosy gathering of Belgian blogosphere influentials. But don't be fooled. It wasn't all that sunshine, happiness and rainbows. No. It takes great courage and nerves of steal to face a mob like them. Bloggers were called and invited by Enchante. Enchante specializes in business relationships with bloggers and positions itself as being able to establish the perfect link between a brand and the exact right blogger. These bloggers were invited without being given a thorough background of the situation.

I was there that evening.

Listen, think, talk
Inviting this specific crowd was a risk, to us, to Kinepolis. We could lose a client. They could drown a lot deeper, a lot deeper. After all this mass of bloggers represented a huge amount of '(online) media space'. There opinions post are were the eyeballs walk. The influencers were on our side. A crowd that is so trained in seeing scams through would have noticed on the spot if they were being tricked into a trap. It was obvious, we were naked. We didn't beg for help, a story was being told. An honest story, a story from the heart, transparent and sincere. The next day, the conversation started. Bloggers were pushing out and they were on our side. Of course still sceptical about many topics listed on the Facebook group. Of course criticizing current issues. But overly, positive. Moreover, David ended his activities on the Facebook group and posted out to
the 42891 members that his mission was accomplished. Kinepolis had listened to the Groundswell. Kinepolis had started talking. And now, so he ended, "dear Kinepolis, now, we are listening."

Join the conversation]

16 February 2009

Shapeshifters: Tom Andries & Nadine Chahine

Tomorrow evening I'll be attending Shapeshifters again. For the second time this year a duo of authorities operating within the field of graphic design will talk about where they're from, what they did and why. Last time I was a bit disappointed in Luc Derycke, though "a bit" is quite an understatement. The man was off raving like a madman, I a certain point I had the impression had brushed his teeth with acid that morning. Hiorthøy's presentation was of a whole other dimension. Humble as always he just stood there being his own 'normal' self, down to earth, with the utterly human touch to the way things were told.

See you there, or wait... If you have been following the activity at Shapeshifters last years you probably noticed that the listed names, this year, aren't the big yoohaabooha they were the years before. Last year Shapeshifters staged Marti Guixé, Lars Müller and Anthon Beeke. and if those names don't speak to you maybe the ones of the series running during the season 2006-2007 ring a bell. John Maeda, Adrian Shaughnessy, Gerard Unger, Irma Boom and Erik Vervroegen. Some others were Alex Trub & Urs Lehni, Laurent Benner and Paul Boudens, Richard Niessen, Rene Knip, Jon Wozencroft and Geneviève Gauckler. Hows' that for a credit-list. Few days ago I was asked to join a team of designers to help publish a book on the Shapeshifters series of past series. I was delighted and am of course very eager to get started. Thank you Johan my March is fulled booked from now!

17 February 2009 — Tom Andries + Nadine Chahine

Tom Andries is a partner at Today Design. He studied graphic design, advertising and typography. He started his career at Marketing Design Brussels and later founded the creative hotshop Vulcan. He became creative director at Redstar Design Antwerp (design department at LDV United, a WPP company) where he created some famous logos and brand identities such as the well-known A for the city of Antwerp, as well as those for Veritas, Indi, O’Cool, etc. Tom has 15 years of design experience and has taken full advantage of this time to create a host of logos and corporate identities.

Nadine Chahine is an award-winning Lebanese type designer with a special interest in Arabic typography. During her studies at the University of Reading (typeface design), she focused on the relationship between Arabic and Latin scripts and the possibilities of creating a harmonious association between the two. She taught Arabic type design at the American University in Dubai and at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. In 2005, she joined Linotype, Germany as the Arabic specialist and has been living in Germany since then. She won the Dean’s Award for Creative Achievement from the American University of Beirut in 2000, and an Award for Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club in New York in 2008. Her typefaces include the best-selling Frutiger Arabic, Palatino Arabic, Koufiya, Janna, Badiya and BigVesta Arabic.

15 February 2009

Creative asset proposition

A while ago I wrote a post titled 'advertising and it's creative teams'. It talked about how the creative department of most 'traditional' ad-agencies have been structured and organized since the fifties and how now there is an emerging trend in shifting that established model. A shift especially seen amongst some, vastly expanding, digital agencies and creative 'hotshops'. Shortly after I noticed some reactions of other 'bloggers' who seemed to be occupied with this issue as well. Mark Tungate, author of the book 'Adland' reacted with some interesting insights on the topic in the comment-section as well DuvalGuillaume's CEO Guillaume Van der Stichelen and DuvalGuillaume's former web strategist who maintains a blog at Pietel.be. Few days later I received a reply from @Janso who asked me to participate the conversation on this topic running at his blog janso.be. Yes, Janso, I know, your utterly right to call me a 'slow fuck'. Your tweet as call for my participation dates from 18.01.2009 and only now I post this ping-back. But hey, I've been having my hands full with a newborn and I've been sweating out a 39.5 degrees fever last week, so please forgive me.

I found the conversation important enough to get back to, even if it has now been 3 weeks since we last posted. First let's analyze the conversation top down and then I'll add what's been tossing my mind about this.

My first post on this topic wasn't intended as a suggestion for the reformation of creative departments in the future. I just find myself cornered, sometimes, in working with a fixed team and nothing but that team. That is team as in 2 other creative thinkers (check last post for insights). To be working as 'a creative' and being bound to planning issues and time-sheets. The out-most reason for the post was the fact that we have a rare structure of working in teams of 3 instead of 2. Lots of people who work at other agencies ask me about it and that spored me to write something about it.

International and network restraints
Pros and cons about working with a team of 3 I thoroughly discussed in the initial writing on this topic but I dropped some info I'd still like to share considering this new post. Namely, you must know, 'international' was absolutely against this reformation. In other words, there was a huge pressure for stopping this 'new model' of working with team of 3 coming BBDO/Proximity supervisors at global levels. It was our current CEO, Gert Pauwels, who led and created this structure within the creative department and he was called to explain why he worked this way. As a matter of fact he was quite enthusiastic about this but needless to say he wasn't quite encouraged to continue his act. He received an e-mail from the some guys up the ladder (they'll probably fire me for write this but anyway, nobody should shoot the pianist). At that time (some 16 months ago or so) he was head of the creative department (guiding 6 creative directors, 7 creative concept teams consisting of 3 creatives, about 10 front-end designers and a graphic design studio of 12), member of the board and creative partner (meaning he is one of 8 stockholders of the company). For the record: Gert also runs a Cuban bar (Barpopular in Mechelen, Antwerp) and a company with his brother. That company, named Boardcast, rents remote controlled digital posters, but this post isn't about Gert at all so let's scroll back to the subject.

All balls on the table
Anyway, the e-mail he received shortly after he reformed the structure of this creative department wasn't all too long: "Stop teams of 3, now". Pretty obvious what there is to do then, right. He decided to keep the setup of 3 persons a team and had a hard time convincing his superiors that this setup was indispensable for the success of the merger at that time. They bought it, luckily. It is only the question now if we will continue to work this way or not. But at this time there is no reason why we should not. If this model wouldn't have paid our check there would be no way we could have continued working like this last 2 years. By the way the revenue of our company didn't drop after the merger occurred and the model of working in teams of 3 ways set into play. Of course you understand that 'international' was against this with a very reasonable explanation: the money. Briefing a team of 3 people in stead of 2 tremendously increases the hourly cost for your clients, and company. The so called profitability would be at stake here. And as you probably know profitability is of a much bigger importance to stockholders than the level of creative output. There are pros and cons to this way of working, naturally. Working with 3 on one briefing gives you extra firepower to take on bigger briefs in demand of delivering a through the line campaign on shorter notice, this way you can deliver faster and clients can enjoy a fast-food service and still be served a quality meal. There's lots and lots of even more pros and cons to light up on this but I'm not planning to write a book so on to the next topic in this conversation.

The 'stuckture' of departments
I've been an opponent of departments my entire life. Maybe more correct to say, an opponent of structure 'an sich' but I understand that people want, and need, some kind of frame to keep chaos from raving. Things must get done, money must be made, what's new. But yes, departments. Sometimes I secretly dream about restructuring the flow of the company I work for. And not only the current company I work with. But then again every model has it's flaws. Anyhow I would like to share my thoughts on the current way we work and the utopia I have thought of from time to time later on in this post.

A dogma called creativity
Next I am noticing your horror for the word creativity. What is creativity? Who is creative? Hmmmn, this is indeed a very subjective topic within this current conversation and I do not wish to spend to much time tossing my mind about this, I can only say this: everyone can, and is creative, yes no doubt. A good idea can come from anybody within the organization. The difference is that not everybody knows how purify an idea and extract the right ingredients from it to make a delicious meal. Moreover, it's given only the happy few that can make it their job, and do a good job. To me, a creative contribution, one with value can be every-ones add. But then again, it is not only the idea that can be accounted for 'creativity' or being creative. On the other hand, having met this situation myself many times now, I do think it is important to be able to claim the idea if it was yours. Award-shows are a way to measure whether you are doing a good job. Since thinking, and it's product: the idea, are so hard to grasp and evaluate sometimes. It is important to be able to appoint who's idea it was because that person gave birth to something that happened, something that gave a lot of other people some recognition as well. I see it as a baby, of which the originator of the idea is the father (or mother). It might as well be that the teacher and the child's friends have influenced it more than the parent but still it remains the child of it's parent. The teacher and friend will be mentioned and thanked whenever the child achieves greatness in it's life but the parent will remain more important to the child in the end. The parent will probably receive more recognition in being thanked, for without the parent there was no child. Of course sometimes an idea evolves, that's when it gets hard to define who's idea it was...

Direct feedback to the first comment
I must admit to agree with Pietel, I kinda missed out on your point writing about the topic in the post but regarding the fact that you were on Sunday mode I don't blame you. As matter of fact I wouldn't have blamed you either way though.

Direct feedback to the second comment
Of course I have nothing to add to what Guillaume said on the topic of creativity. To me he is one of the Godfathers of creativity, in Belgium that is. Not that I claim that he's the most creative person in the Belgian advertising industry, yet I'm not saying he's not but that is not what I intend to point at glorifying him with this mafia title. He was the first, of course together with André no doubt, to not only focus on creativity within the organization but to build a new one entirely incorporating this creativity as a center-point. And of course this is (very) old news Mr.Wulleman but, in my opinion, it has never been about creativity but always about relationships. Relationships are the real center-point of the theater. Communicating with a constantly renewing spirit fueled with innovation and creativity is what builds a lasting relationship. If I bring my wife red roses every Wednesday and fuck her doggy style once a week that relationship is bound to crash anywhere soon. Bringing her different things on different days, making love in different ways in different places is still communicating the same boring message of "I love you and want to forever hold you" but I estimate my chances a lot higher in establishing that long-term relationship doing the latter. And that's exactly what Guillaume has showed many of us. Let God thank him for this. For now we are all rallying that same believe.

The prize of growing fast, the price of being big
I had breakfast with Guillaume last week. And of the many things he said there's at least one thing I'd like to talk about in his post. We briefly talked about the way the structures are now tighter then in the past, especially in his company were growth tends to parch creativity and freedom. The bigger the company gets the more people get involved in managing the company, thus the more people have to share the money, thus the more importantly the aspect of profitability becomes. Of course the growth of the head-count mustn't entirely be devoted to the growing importance of profitability. The sell-out to large networks accounts probably for the significant part of this change in attitude. Yet it is inevitable. Only few agencies of this size have been able to resist being bought by the networks. As a matter of fact I can recall only one: Famous. Or have I missed out on any news? Even they were very close to selling out to DDB. On the other hand why shouldn't they, these larger networks amplify the agency to fish for clients in the ocean rather than to stick to local rivers and lakes. Needless to say this hammers in on the ease of how one is comforted to create. To mark Guillaume words: "the business of advertising used to be simple. The clients had a 100 to spend and the agencies were assigned 15. For that 15 we could spoil the client until he'd be happy. Just do whatever, things that suited his needs, 'basta'. The real quids were coming from the commissions the agencies git out of the major media contracts and as in any business some guys got greedy and gradually the pressure was put on the agencies as larger commissions faded to media-companies and clients became more demanding. And now it's all about the hourly cost of things." The hourly cost of things.

Meet the timesheet
Guillaume: "Can you imagine? I would have never thought someone would be able to 'create' within the boundaries of a day-to-day planning. It's has got even this far, hear me out. I was in the Antwerp offices and I had a wild idea for one of our clients. I stepped up to a designer that was still sitting there and asked him if he'd like to work with me on the visualization of this idea. The bloke simply prompt me: I can't I have be been 'planted'. (I'm sorry 'booked' that is, as in I'm scheduled for the daily planning, planted just sounds so funny and in dutch planted and booked is the same word :)) I was left standing and roughly sketched it out myself." I was folded by laughter hearing this story. It reminded me of my crusade against the schedule I meet daily.

Oldschool spreadsheets and two cups of coffee
We have 2 traffickers who handle and arrange the bookings for the jobs and projects. They assign every project to the assets requested to handle the job. That happens in time-slots on a day to day basis. Starting from were we are now. No fancy project-management tools where bookings are made project based, nope. Just some old-school spreadsheets and two fine ladies filling up the holes to get things covered. There is no way I could possibly oversee who is working on a project that I started nor can I check out on people that run projects coming my way. Just day to day spans of a scattered back-planning that is probably stashed in some accounts pile of papers. No ins or outs of before or after the period of time I handle a specific job or project. But hey, what do I know, maintaining a project-based planning doesn't seem profitable for traffickers so I write down one paragraph on the subject and that's that.

Direct feedback to the fifth comment
Someone aliased as Sideburns questions the use of 'a creative brainstorms'. Probably because they tend to consume a lot of time and they seem to be fun hours to the ones not participating it. A perception most likely initiated by lazy and lame 'creative' people at the agency who get noisy and loud during their brainstorm sessions. There are different ways: a brainstorm session can be held short, powerful and (very) effective but those are mostly very demanding of energy and not always easy to establish because they require a lot of focus from participators. Crucial in a brainstorm is the level of interaction, or communication, contact between the participators. If it is not a small coffee it can be a long one and those are mostly the ones recognized as the ones where 'creatives' are going berserk and waiving away decent authority and respect. Sometimes that works. Pushing the boundaries and boredom. It is a way of looking for a new entrance on the matter confronted with. Often a mind-map is sketched out. A brainstorm is literally piling up or spitting out information and insights in the left (or was it the right) part of the brain so all the sudden some nerves would pop and 'thé' idea can come out. But, dear Sideburns, they are useful you know. They might not bring forth direct results but they lead to it, if properly practiced. Not to mention, a client is willing to pay for that time. The brainstorm exists to dig into the givens. The idea (more often than not) comes unexpected but is fed by the time spend on the matter during the brainstorm. It initiates the activity that established the forthcoming of that one idea that can come out anytime, anywhere, or not.

And then, finally, some direct feedback to the third comment
The current model of our companies, ours and many others (in Belgium at least, I can't include the ones across the borders since I've never visited one), divides the structure in different departments: commercial/accounts, PR/marketing, strategy, creative, production, CRM, finance, management. This is mainly done, I think, because of planning reasons. Larger companies work with a strict work-flow chopping up the flow, from brief to delivery, into manageable pieces. It is also assumed that grouping and teaming up people with comparable profiles takes care of a large portion of knowledge-sharing within the company. While some state that combining different profiles would make a generalist out of everybody. Well well the eternal question surfaces water again: "do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?" — The generalist knows little about a lot, the specialist knows a lot about little — quite a nut-cracking dilemma if you ask me.

Together or not together
Combining profiles works very good for a 'hotshop' of front-end designers for example. If front-end, or flash, designers can work in small teams (4 to 6, maybe 8) they will, over time, be able to easily share their codes with each-other. A lot of 'scripters' tend to have different approaches and ways of writing code. Because of this, it is sometimes hard to collaborate or join projects with each-other. If these designers have different scripting methods or handle and manage assets and 'codewriting' differently they can be literally be inaccessible for others which holds them from bouncing for each-other, when someone is ill, or fired let's say. It also is a barrier for working on larger projects. When they are able to team up regularly they can start sharing their methods and develop a small standard of handling things within the group. This way projects can easily be passed on, or joined. But this is not the case for all profiles in the structure. For creatives the cards are shuffled from different decks. We're not really talking about technical skills here. The strength of a creative department is more based on thinking and visualizing. So directing them into one big pool leads to the dangers of consensus. Maybe even the development of the same style, level, strength, thoughts even. The danger of reaching only mediocrity. Of course within companies that have the nature and philosophy of striving for the best creative work and being better than the others in the same team can lift the level of output tremendously but again this is not always the case and but few companies harvest this positive drive from spontaneous competitiveness.

My creative asset proposition
My utopian proposition for restructuring the assets (*) and abandoning the departments would be to divide the block into smaller formations housing all profiles and working as brand-teams. Could be seen as creating small companies inside a big company but this is not entirely the case. I would try to amplify those micro-structures with plug-and-play Bishops, or wild-card profiles. Let me zoom in on the that. Or may I first point out that this would only be manageable for companies with more than 100 or so assets. A different model would apply for smaller companies, yet I don't think that smaller companies suffer from the weight of departments.

How would it be done?
Well according to the amount of assets in a middle management the blue-chip clients must be selected and appointed. Let's say there are 4 account directors and 4 creative directors. You have a list of clients with 8 significant account accounting for about 80% of the companies income. That sounds pretty sane to me. Ok, checking reality tells me that a lot of companies have a big-fish in their wallets, eating by large the accounts of the next accounts on your account-list but that to me is more off on the edge for a healthy balance amongst the services you provide to each client. If your big-fish chooses open waters you'd have to fire a significant part of your organization so let's stick to purity and take on the fact that the 8 top-clients of the company is accounted for 10% of your income, each. The setup would be this: 4 groups, led by 1 account director and 1 creative director each. Every account director leads 1 (or 2) account manager(s) and 3 (to 4) account executives. Every creative director leads 2 creative teams. That creative team houses 2 copywriters, art directors with different specialties and backgrounds (preferably 1 above, 1 online and 1 below), a graphic designer (with skills reaching from print over simple animation design and web-design) and 2 desktop publishers. Every group enforced by 1 strategic planner, 1 project manager and checked by 1 finance. These brand-teams work on two blue-chip clients supplemented with smaller income clients in order to cover the load. The test would be to equally divide the weight of the clients in terms of income for the company and workload for the group. Key in this micro-company model is the wild-card teams. Wild-card teams are teams that can bounce whenever a group is hot, or when needs suit specialties not included in the group formation. A first series of wild-card teams would be made out of front and back-end developers or code-designers as you please. To comply with the numbers used in this example: 4 teams of code-designers existing of 3 front and 1 back-end developer. They are able to be appointed to a group but individuals can also shift on working on different projects whenever task-force is demanded. A second wild-card team is the current CRM dept. Like the code-designers their best to be directed together. This seems better for remaining the power of sharing specific knowledge, taking care of issues in group and remain the ability to constantly update on new services and they way the processes are handled and monitored. They count 12. R&D (4) is checked in the CRM team here, they brief the strategists casually. Then, not quite a wild-card team, yet in a way acting as one. In fact one I should have started with. The grease to the entire organization: the management team. They supervise the organization and can in my opinion hardly be devoted to one team only. They are, in this model, the only ones that still remain working within the structure of the old departments. They are ideally 4. 1 mainly new biz and public relations, 1 client service, 1 creative partner and 1 strategic partner. We now have an MT of 8 or so but that is of course due to the merger of the former 3 companies. Next to this pool of wild-card teams there are the wild-card individuals that enforce whatever group is in need of an extra pair of hands. These wild-card individuals contain the necessary functions: an HR and marketing manager, an extra PR or new biz manager, 1 or 2 production managers, 2 for handling traffic, 2 IT managers, a network administrator, an event manager maybe 2 to 3, a media (2 would be comfortable if you would think of a planner and a buyer as two different profiles) and art buyer. The completion of the wild-card individualists would be to supplement it with seniors, specialists and experts of the former strategy and creative departments. One senior of each specialty should surely do the job and might even be overkill but could though give extra draft and support to the appearing weaknesses within some groups. Oh and an office manager would come in handy to be complete. By working with devoted groups supported with wild-card teams and individuals the organization, I think, can be freed from the pressure of the frustrating inertia. And simultaneously reposition to be the lean mean fighting machine that serves it's clients well, gives sufficient oxygen for the people on the floor and at the mean time is able to create cutting edge through the line campaigns motored from the digital center-point desired in so many cases.

A round up of the indicated numbers, top down a total organization of 120 sharp.
• the management team: total of 4
• the core groups: 4 (total of 76)
—> 1 group = 1 cd, 1 ad, 2 am, 4 ae, 2 copy, 4 ad, 1 gd, 2 dtp, 1 strat, 1 fin, 1 pm
• the wild-card teams: 2 (total of 28)
—> code-designers: 4 teams » 1 team = 3 front, 1 back
—> CRM dept: total of 12 (4 R&D)
• the wild-card individuals: total of 16
About the size most big single companies are in Belgium. That is; companies inside Belgian networks, working from different locations across the country, not accounted for.

The benefits
Why go through all this trouble of creating micro-companies and restructuring the whole organization?
This thought sprung up out of the idea that departments work limiting to some extend. We needed to get rid of the departments and the current structure with which agencies, or their base, tend to struggle. Working groups with these groups allows people from the organization to work closer with people from different backgrounds and still not be forced into total independence and being left to working alone. The synergy of the groups will, to my opinion, allow people from top down to be involved with projects from start to finish, maybe not entirely but at least more than before. Also, and more importantly, skills of different profiles within that group will be able to but more value to the projects they are involved with. 1) because they will know more about the clients the group maintains and get in on more of the insights of the brief. 2) because they will, on a daily basis, be able to work closer together with people from different backgrounds and thus will be able to fully grasp the outcome and stretch of the project. 3) projects will, hopefully, be taken to the next level because all possible profiles will be involved. They will be creating together and will no longer have to struggle over making interpretations of certain concepts or ideas to work in other media.

I think this model would be able to give creative agencies more possibilities to fully grasp the stretch of the resources provided per project. Offer ideas using the suited, not demanded, media. And most importantly, create concept-frameworks that can act as platforms to role out specific declinations instead of medium-fit solutions that don't fit the bigger picture.

Of course I am very aware of the fact that this idea is kinda 'utopian', and as well as any other structure-model has many flaws. No, I am not a business-consultant nor do I have experience in building, managing, organizing let alone maintaining or running a company. I'm just writing down my vision and ideas to start a conversation with people who do know about these things. Also writing about eases the way thoughts evolve and are handled inside my head. I appreciate you reading or scrolling this far down the post and would like to invite you to re-post or comment on this topic if you feel a need to correct or complete my writing. If you sincerely think what I wrote is complete crap, bullocks, bullshit please keep your guts and don't comment anonymously I'm open to take on the beating and learn something.

Kind regards on this.

(*) People within creative and production departments are referred to as resources or assets. Usually they do not work in a pro-active sense, their job is to execute or act upon what they are briefed, asked or told to do.