Dear Agencies, it’s time to join the start-up party

One of the biggest problems in the UK, and I would say Ireland as well, is that digital or ‘new media’ agencies only ever decide to incorporate new Web apps or social networks into their thinking when they bubble up from Silicon Valley or elsewhere. Few ever think to jump in and create a few apps themselves. I have lost count of the number of agencies I encounter who blabber excitedly about their “Facebook marketing strategy” when the developers inside their businesses could probably have built Facebook, if they’d only been given their head.

But an encouraging trend is smarter agencies starting to use some down-time between those interminable client pitches to build new, interesting projects which might just turn into startup businesses in their own right. One example is Isotoma in York, which created the Forkd social network for recipes (TCUK write up). Another is London-based Howard Baines. It was amongst the first agencies to work with Visual Studio 2008, earned a Microsoft case study and a lot of press as an early adopter of Adobe AIR with their AlertThingy Twitter / FriendFeed / Flickr application. Here’s co-founder Clive Howard’s reasoning about why agencies should start building web apps.

As a web agency we spend most of our time working on client projects that cover a range of services from design and development to strategic advice. As a business we face other challenges such as promoting our brand, winning new clients and staying current with the latest trends and technologies. The relentless pace of evolution within internet technologies creates another problem. That is: how to sell clients exciting new concepts when you have nothing to show in terms of previous work.

I’m sure that many agencies reading this will be very familiar with these challenges and often find themselves frustrated in search of answers. When we started Howard Baines we made it a priority to find a way of addressing this. Our solution was to build our own start-ups.

We deliberately chose new technologies or concepts and then used them to design and build web apps. The process not only provided a way of rapidly moving up the learning curve but also resulted in proof-of-concept applications that we could use to demonstrate our experience to clients and act as great PR vehicles for us. The whole process of developing a web application is also a good exercise for learning more about what our start-up clients go through and improving our own design and development processes.

Of course we’re probably not going to be building enterprise scale applications but we have found that small apps can be good for business and also incredible fun to do. As we usually work to a client’s brief having complete control over a project is great and seeing the results very satisfying. Picking a cool new technology, brainstorming ideas and then pulling something together fast is a fantastic experience on an individual and company level.

As an agency we have all the skills in-house to do these projects and so the only cost is our time. The big question therefore is how can this be done around a busy schedule of client work?

Well, because we had the in-house skills and only ourselves to please, it turned out we could produce these apps in very short timescales. Having seen the numerous benefits to building our own Web apps the time investment required seems extremely well spent. We already have plans for a third app to come later in the year.

We recommend that other agencies start producing their own apps and we look forward to seeing and hearing about what you come up with. Again, the experience of designing and developing an app in a short timeframe could unearth new ways of working that may help you day-to-day. In addition a great little add-on or side project may help generate some great PR for your start-up (remember that Twitter started as a side project).