NETSCRAPE;WELCOME TO THE INFOMERCIALBAHN, WHERE FAR-SITED AD AGECIES SELL THEIR MOST IMPORTATNT PRODUCTS: THEMSELVES

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IT SEEMS LIKE EVERY COMPANY IN THE WORLD IS ON THE Web, or soon will be, and ad agencies are no exception, with at least 50 already up and running with their own home pages, featuring everything from creative forums and local tourist information to online business pitches and sites that look like a cross between an arcade and an art gallery.

For instance, Ogilvy & Mather's BrandNet site, which is aimed at its worldwide staff and marketing buffs, shovels on its branding philosophy mixed with oodles of downloadable commercials; Mullen offers a free Creative Concepts class to prospective creatives and an area for reviews of other Web sites; meanwhile, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners cuts straight through any stuffy self-imagery with a display of baby photos of its executives and a game in which employees' portraits can be matched with photos of their feet. The boutiquey Ad Store in New York goes the ultimate self-abasing route, picturing its staff as cartoon caricatures replete with nicknames and wry bios.

While many agencies seem to be throwing their printed brochures and self-promotion pieces onto the Internet, that approach doesn't make sense to Nat Whitten, creative director at Weiss Whitten Stagliano, who's overseeing the agency's new-media division. "You wouldn't put up an agency promotion as a commercial during 'Roseanne,'*" Whitten points out, adding optimistically: "Then why would you put one up on a site where 20 million people are going to come?"

Hence, Whitten says they decided to create a graphic, entertaining realm they've dubbed WWSWorld, where people would be motivated to return. "We made a conscious effort not to call ourselves an ad agency in the beginning," he says, by way of explaining the opening few pages, which contain text like, "You've arrived at the digital downtown of the not-too-distant future." WWSWorld attempts to "fulfill all your virtual interests, whether they may be mental, physical or spiritual," the somewhat hyperbolic copy continues, through something they call a virtual Fun House or various other essays and forums found in this cutout-collaged environment. "We want to be one of the hubs that people come to see what's going on," says Whitten. "Let's be an interesting kind of flypaper."

TBWA Chiat/Day proffers a similar philosophy in a site formerly known as the The Idea Factory, soon to reflect the merged company's global presence, says Laurie Coots, COO at TBWA Chiat/Day/Venice who oversees the site's content. "We have a much bigger playground to talk about different issues," Coots says, explaining how she'd like nothing better than the ordinary Web surfer to visit the site in search of a source of provocative debate and inspiration. "We focus on architecture, art and things that are specific to our business and part of popular culture."

However, far more prosaic bulletin boards and forums in agency home pages could certainly be one of the most meaningful aspects of these sites, offering agencies a rare opportunity to gather opinions and have their work and the work of others critiqued online. For instance, The Leap Partnership's site offers a different essay on advertising every month, which people can comment on. O'Keefe Marketing, a small agency in Richmond with solid Internet expertise, has a section called Think Tank where people can submit their marketing questions, which receive personal e-mail attention. The Martin Agency braves abuse by asking people who accidentally click on the gripe bin (access it by clicking on the disgruntled doodle face on the desk in the M area) to leave comments or gripes, evoking humorous jabs by Fallon buddies like Luke Sullivan (a former Martin staffer), whose comment read simply, "Boy, does your site suck." Agencies like Martin and Mullen offer links to other sites and then ask you to rate what you saw there. Both Ogilvy and TBWA Chiat/Day have used the feedback section as a recruitment tool.

Undeniably, self-promotional drums beat under every ad agency site, something that some agencies are amplifying more than others. But true to the spirit of the Net's noncommercial beginnings, some of the most intriguing sites simple rely on quirky graphics and entertaining content rather than high-end software supporting a hard sales pitch. Rubin Postaer & Associates' site, produced by Organic Online (the producers of Ad Age's home page, it's worth noting), presents its work and clients in a fun game show format called RPA'o Matic. Dahlin Smith

It is obvious that a lot of thought went into developing the concept of the site to make it look fun and witty and interactive. Its attempts at cleverness, however, mask its essential content- the examples of RPA's print work. The push-the-buttons conceit does not work for me; it's been done and it just seems stale. The graphics are bright and goofy but seem to be placed on the page with little or no HTML savvy. There is absolutely no formatting of the HTML text, which is incongruent juxtaposed to professional illustrations. The graphics with embedded navigational elements are only half-visible on PC screens, allowing only half of the navigation options to be viewed/accessed at once.

The navigation choices themselves are confusing. Under Insta-facts, I expected a lot of helpful information about RPA (basically a FAQ); I was instead taken to another big graphics page with buttons for individual profiles and a company statement that seems lifted straight out of a print brochure. Under the Chit and Chat button is a form for the user to fill out and a place for comments to be submitted. This being a unidirectional conversation area, I don't understand either the graphics or the name for the section. I understood that the Don't Push This Button button obviously meant that I should push that button, but I was disappointed that there wasn't something more clever than a cartoon stating that I should not have pushed the button. It seems to me that if you are going to have such a device you should at least start downloading a 4-meg slide show of the company Christmas party. The only section that gave me interesting information in return for my efforts was Client-a-Rama where it was easy to see that RPA was good at its job.

Overall, I feel that the RPA site was designed on paper and then loaded onto a server, rather than being created for this new medium specifically. If RPA aims to show its talents as a print advertising company, I recommend they pull the examples of their work closer to the surface of the site and let it speak for itself. If the aim is to demonstrate its mastery of this new medium, they should spend a lot more time surfing and redesign their site to be less confusing, with better use of HTML and some clever cgi/perl surprises to show off their skills.

Site: Woolward and Partners (http://www.woolward.com/ adsrus/)

The construction of this site is well-planned, but I was appalled at the pixelated (rough edges) graphics, bitmapped text and sloppy HTML formatting in some sections. The sparseness of the first three introductory pages is refreshing and effective (if they fixed the graphics). The main interface page is clear, but the navigation graphics used on this page should have been repeated in the subsection navigation options.

Of the three subsections, About Us and Fun Stuff are well-conceived and simple and could use only a few cosmetic touches to clean up the graphics. The Work section, however, should be reworked; the HTML is uneven and nonprofessional looking and the page could use a few small graphics to brighten it up.

The site has the right attitude and is potentially a great one, but I recommend that they recreate all their graphics for the Web and spend some time with an HTML expert.

Reviewer: Jason Pearson, Creative Director, Blender CD-ROM Magazine

Site: Weiss Whitten Stagliano (http://www.wwsworld.com)

This site has an excellent, bright layout with understandable written instructions accompanied with teaser images. The opening image is enticing and invites you to explore further. The information is presented logically on a Table of Contents screen, and it is also presented with a second, more playful interface they describe as the Funhouse. The Funhouse is a large collage imagemap (46-second fast download) that allows you to explore the site intuitively and visually. My only criticism of the navigation is that once you have explored a section of the Funhouse the Return To icon brings you back to the Table of Contents, not to the Funhouse.

As far as content goes, 90 percent of it here is blatant self-promotion, but it's done well. If the site is designed purely for prospective clients and indus- try users, it fulfills its purpose. However, if it is designed to be viewed by the "global Web users," it lacks any creative presentation or information. But there are a few unusual and hidden sections that are quite comical. See, for instance, Volume 1 of Easy Air Guitar, and a tribute to Hot Ferraris.

Overall, the interface is clean, and it uses the technology well. It works well on several browsers besides Netscape, although the site recommends Netscape. Images download quickly and are marked for their durations.

White, the Intel agency, opens with a yellow legal pad covered with doodles. "Doodle something wild," is the request, and the copy invites users to e-mail their doodle in the allotted space. The agency's portfolio is a tiny leg of the site.

Similarly, O'Keefe Marketing's site, which contains attractive pastel illustrations, features a Cafe section, which creative director Kelly O'Keefe explains is an outlet for his staff to post fiction, poetry and art. Even the simple transitional site from Woolward & Partners invites attention with a photo of an ostrich with its head in the sand under the question, "Got the feeling that folks aren't paying enough attention to your advertising?"

Ironically, as many agencies that are proficient in the medium tweak their own sites, some are either ignoring the Internet altogether or claim they simply haven't had a chance to put a site up because they're too busy putting their clients' together (e.g., Leo Burnett and Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners). An Internet address might soon be critical for survival, in light of the hopeful claim in Ogilvy's BrandNet: "2.5 million adults have already purchased goods or services over the Web."

"I think it's important to be on the Web from a capability standpoint," says Coots. "We had to experiment on ourselves first before we could ask our clients to get involved."

Reviewer: Andrew Wanliss-Orlebar, Design Director, totalny.com

Site: Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners

(http://www.kb.com/)

Site: TBWA Chiat/Day (http://www.chiatday.com)

Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners' presence on the Web comes in a consistent, friendly form on small, fast pages. Hand-drawn graphics guide you through the whole site while consistent text-links on every page never let you get lost. Better still, they give the sense, often absent on the Web, of a defined space and a sense of direction.

This site deftly exploits the quirkiness of the Web. The Guess Who game still doesn't work, but it's amusing nonetheless to try matching employees to their respective shoes. Elsewhere, we discover someone's recent holiday in Guatemala.

A more straightforward presentation of the agency is available and easy to find. KB&P makes a real point of illustrating its methods and presenting full histories of its client relationships.

A cursory look at TBWA Chiat/Day's site suggests it might have adopted a similar approach to Kirshenbaum's. Navigation is made through colorful maps in the distinctly informal atmosphere of the Idea Factory. However, the metaphors by which information is broken up are considerably less clear, and while some links lead to vast and occasionally slow subsites, others are just long pages of text.

Hence, finding the best parts of this site can require some digging. The material here is more diverse, including a game based on the Nynex campaign and an extensive art gallery. Other elements include a collection of marketing manifestos, presented a little more dryly than KB&P's marketing approach.

In either case, the content stretches clearly beyond that of a straightforward business-to-business presence. In addition to an extensive portrayal of the agencies' philosophies, the sites abound with personality and browser-friendly material.

Neither site, however, is by any means a showcase of impressive Web work. Backgrounds were added to many Chiat/Day pages just as I recently reviewed them.

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