In the top floor of a low-slung office building in suburban Chicago, just a few miles from O'Hare Airport, a group of Aircell's 130 employees is working on tapping into one of the last internet-free zones: the mile-high, in-flight experience. And a key member of its team is digital agency AKQA.
Tom Weigman, a former Procter & Gamble and Sprint marketing exec, and his crew are armed with MRI data; a small, windowless office reconfigured to simulate an airline cabin; and the brainpower of what Aircell CEO Jack Blumenstein jokingly refers to as "the spiky-haired Brits" at AKQA. The team's mission: Create a consumer-facing in-flight product that feels like a programmed portal -- a more open revision of the AOL walled-garden approach.
Broader marketing purview
For AKQA, the account is a relatively small but important one. Such product-design requests are not yet common for agencies but increasingly show up on requests for proposals as it becomes more evident that marketing is, ultimately, about creating pleasing experiences.
"We'll own the experience, the brand and the communications," said Guy Wieynk, managing director of AKQA, New York. "You don't want to wait for the product to be finished, build the IT and then put the consumer experience after that."
It's also the kind of project that could end up going to a consulting firm more often than an ad agency. Aircell's roots are in outfitting private jets with communications systems -- it costs about $100,000 and takes airline workers less than a day to outfit a plane with Wi-Fi. But the agency has been asked to create three consumer products: the ground site or booking path; the in-air portal or "face in the sky," as Mr. Weigman calls it; and an in-air mobile site, increasingly important for Wi-Fi enabled smart phones. The main service is set to launch within the year, and while the price is not yet set, it's expected to come in below $10 a flight.
That in-flight simulator at Aircell's offices, with its three rows of coach seats and four business-class seats, is a good indicator of the research behind the product launch.
The first order of business was to look at the type of traveler most likely to use the service. Mr. Weigman -- no surprise given his consumer-package-goods pedigree -- has taken a data-centric approach, looking at MRI data about the media behaviors of a cross-section of travelers and heavy internet users. He also has looked at what types of media are most commonly used at Wi-Fi hotspots.
"We could build a generic service that just gives you access to web, or we can be a little smarter about what content people might want," AKQA's Mr. Wieynk said. "We're looking at movies on demand, gaming and services such as e-mail." And what is surely good news for fellow travelers: There's not likely to be Skype. (BitTorrent will also be restricted because of the heavy bandwidth required.)
One work sample that impressed the Aircell team was AKQA's design of the Xbox Live interface. AKQA also had a roster of past and current clients for which it had built out web experiences: Comcast, Visa, Orange in the U.K. And it had cutting-edge technologies -- important, said Mr. Weigman, because while many service companies have legacy code on their sites that must be accommodated with any new product design, "we have a clean, white slate." AKQA is also advising on the branding. If Research in Motion is known by its BlackBerry brand, for example, why couldn't Aircell become shorthand for e-mail access in flight?
The compensation model is actually fairly traditional; AKQA doesn't have a revenue-share arrangement or a stake in the company. But the project does have what Mr. Wieynk calls the ultimate built-in accountability.
"If the service doesn't sell, we can't blame the product," he said.