The following is also my latest MediaPost Spin column…
Ad Agency Gets Web 2.0! Can It Be True?
March 28th, 2008 by Max Kalehoff
Let’s face it. Ad agencies don’t get Web 2.0. Nor do they get the so-called “living Web.” Not only that, agencies seldom present themselves with any pride. On one hand, you have stale, amateur agency sites that are throwbacks to the late nineties. On the other, you have rich-media, Flash-based clichÃ©s – useless caricatures before they even leave the gate. That’s partly why my vote for “agency of the year” since 2006 has been a firm nobody.
Which is why I’m terribly compelled by Boston-based agency Modernista, whose current clients include Cadillac, Hummer, TIAA-CREF, Discovery Networks and BusinessWeek. As my friend Noah Brier described: “Rather than hosting anything on their own, they just do a nav overlay and drive you around what – at least looks like – the rest of the Web.” In other words, Modernista completely did away with the notion of the Web site. Instead, it entered territory you rarely see any ad agency go, especially on behalf of itself.
How does it work? If you Google Modernista and click on the first result, which happens to be www.modernista.com, the search-engine results page will reload with a cryptic red navigation overlay in the upper right corner. A flashing alert appears, which says “Don’t be alarmed. You are on the new Modernista! site.” If you point your cursor to “ab.ou.t,” you can choose to visit the agency’s Wikipedia entry or Facebook profile. Or you can choose to bookmark Modernista on one of several Web 2.0 bookmark and sharing services.
If you select “work” on the Google results page, you can choose to view Modernista’s print portfolio on Flickr, television work on YouTube, or Web work on del.icio.us. If you select “n3wz,” you’ll be taken to Modernista’s search engine results page on Google News. Finally, selecting “cont@ct” in the navigation menu will provide direct links to the agency’s addresses on Google Maps, email, as well as AIM and Skype.
According to the publication Creativity, Modernista’s navigation menu is actually in the site. It sits on top of an inline frame which Modernista used to load URLs from elsewhere on the web. That enables users to navigate and use the Web as they normally would without having to leave the homepage.
For an interactive ad agency, this is an incredibly enlightening piece of work. It’s refreshing and cleansing because it embraces transparency and authenticity – usually the antithesis of advertising. It takes courage to leave the comfort of predefined boundaries and predictable real estate – ahem, a “Web site.” But it also takes serious commitment to proactively define yourself by how true Web citizens would choose to get to know and interact with you – via the Web’s most powerful social platforms. A siteless site is a bold idea, and questions all the knee-jerk conventional thinking about what a Web site should be in the first place.
While I applaud Modernista’s new homepage concept, its success should be determined by its long-term commitment and ability to drive the Modernista brand and client acquisition, not short-term hype. In addition, the living Web, which Modernista so creatively tapped into, should be engrained beyond the short-term. Let’s see this idea go the long haul! Let’s see it inspire existing and new clients!
And for the initiative to be truly authentic, the agency’s employees must demonstrate significantly more participation and fluency in Web 2.0 – as individuals. The first line in Modernista’s mission statement is “We believe brands are like people.” Ironically, I can’t name one single person or face involved with the agency. The people behind the Modernista brand are mysterious creatures of the night, if they’re even people at all. In other words, Modernista hasn’t advanced beyond institutional status. To me, that’s still the critical missing piece in what the agency is claiming to be.
Still, they pushed the boundaries far further than most.