Monday, June 1, 2009

For All its Worth

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.
I'm Hank Leber, founder of Agency Nil and recent graduate of the VCU Brandcenter (MS, Mass Communications). For those who are unfamiliar, Agency Nil's model is, "Pay what you think the work is worth once you get it. Nothing up front."

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?
My story is not ordinary - much like others who have wound up in Interactive. After undergrad at William and Mary (English major) I toured in a rock band for 5 years, full time. We had a very good time, played with many of our musical heroes, and sold a lot of music. I ran the business, which included art direction (posters, cd art, stickers, merchandise), web design, copywriting/music writing, and lots of stuffy MBA kinds of things.

We were the generation of musicians caught in the whirlwind of a post-Napster era (2001-2005) where music was becoming free but no one knew how to make it work yet (and, arguably, most people still don't). But there are some smart folks out there trying to fix it - how can I not mention Bruce Flohr and his plan for Radio Head's In Rainbows release? Pay what you think it's worth...hmm...

Anyway, we had a major record deal fall through and were left with a tough choice. (Chose to stop). Grad school at VCU seemed appropriate - some business, some art, and a lot of advertising/communications training - right up my alley. And it was a fantastic experience. I got exposed to the wonders of interactive digital technology and studied the social aspects of the internet from the inside and the out.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
Twitter and Tumblr have become increasingly relevant to my staying up with the times. They're great as long as you're following the right people. I keep telling others who are confused about Twitter, "It's not about, 'I'm eating this awesome sandwich right now.' It's about, 'Check out this really smart, obscure link/article I found.' " And of course, I've got my daily feed of blogs coming in. BBH Labs, Scobleizer, Noah Brier, Kawasaki, PSFK - too many to list, really (and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings if I didn't mention them). There's just lots of smart stuff out there. And the filtration/feed system is getting better every day.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?
Ideal is a dangerous thought. I can more easily tell you this: Projects go well when I've got an open-minded (read: less totalitarian and more eager to learn) client who wants to get out of comfort zones, take a few chances to make things new, and doesn't mind the thought of letting something develop over a bit of time. A lot of clients expect a social or interactive solution to be immediate, as though we could air-drop 100,000 sheep onto their fenced, green pastures.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?

Story, story, story. Setting up a viable, sensible layout for the landscape you're working in, business situation, and most importantly - behavioral needs and qualities your work will be based on is key. If you don't set the scene right in the first place, you'll have a confused, nervous client instead of an excited one. And that's trouble. Once you get a receptive client, setting up realistic timetables, expectations, and projections will go over much better.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?
I wound up writing the strategy for the launch of Budweiser American Ale last year while interning at DDB Chicago. It's not the sexiest 'interactive project' story, but it was great to work on the top level with great creatives, a big old fashioned budget, and web developers that could really crank it out. The site could have been way more interactive and socially minded, but it was a year ago, last summer. That's an eon, essentially.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?

The Agency Nil model is set up to handle lots of projects at once. Since the employees are mostly between-jobs ad people and recent ad school grads, there are a lot of potential team members to put on projects. I get emails every day from people wanting to work for the agency from all over the world. Personally, I don't like to get invested in 4 or more projects at once - it's a brain space issue, and quality of thought goes down. I trust my teams to lead their projects a lot of times, though, which makes it easy to keep more things going if need be.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?
I'm a big fan of creative technologists - specifically focusing on the strategy behind an interactive execution and whether or not it's fulfilling a specific need in the consumer. An interactive designer is good to have, especially when paired with a smart programmer who knows how to work fast while working smartly. And I always want to have an out-of-the-box-minded copywriter on board to to any writing and also to be the effect/vibe coach. Most of the time if it isn't cool it isn't going to work. The team can be comprised of all of these parts, fewer, or more - to me, the most important part is that everyone is thinking strategically and that all minds are on the same page working toward the goals. If that happens, a whole lot can get done with fewer people.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?
Interactive work needs to fulfill a definite, established need in the consumer. Not to be confused with a made-up or hoped-for need, as is the case many times. I'm talking about Maslow's Hierarchy here - old school stuff. The basic human needs like self-actualization, communication, survival, reassurance, information - all of these are behind any successful interactive execution. And if the need is perceived, or hoped, the thing fails. Think of Second Life, or Wal-Mart's social network try a while back.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?
The notion of too much noise and overcrowding in media seems like the most likely factor in shaping the new Internet and advertising. Everything will be so filtered and feed-ed and customized that a brand will have to either A) become as human as their consumers and provide relevant, interesting content instead of just messages or B) utilize Ad Exchanges to give their placements a sickening, scary amount of relevance based on each of our surfing histories. Big Brother is watching, and he knows what kind of underwear you'd be interested in buying.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.
I don't think I have much wisdom. But a belief I'd like to share: all of this new technology, apps, i-this, i-that, web 3-point-something, they are all all just new vehicles for ideas. There is no replacing the value and utility of simple, great ideas. And we mustn't lose sight of that; if you can't get the idea out on a sheet of paper with a line or two, then start over.

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