Turn up on Friday afternoon at Gladeye's Parnell office and you're likely to get a sausage as part of its weekly all-staff barbecue. Turn up at any other time during the week and you're likely to get some of the best web design and digital thinking in the country. Founder and director Tarver Graham and account director Ben Glazewski talk turkey.
The day I sat down for a chat at Gladeye headquarters, founder Tarver Graham and account director Ben Glazewski were beaming after being told that morning that its own, freshly redesigned website had won site of the day on Awwwards.com. The next day, it launched a beautiful website for Air New Zealand's Antarctic promotion, No Ordinary Place, No Ordinary Assignment. And it's done a heap more beautiful, interactive things in the past for the likes of Moa, 42 Below, House of Travel and GrabOne. As Graham says, "where I think we've had some success is in integrating art and technology".
"We’ve produced a phenomenal variety of digital projects for a team our size, from augmented reality POS [for 42 Below] to award-winning social media campaigns to complex apps for global enterprises like Les Mills International and Roche [the app InDetail is used by 6,000 sales reps throughout Asia Pacific]. I think that says a lot about our process, which is very flexible and based on iterative innovation rather than old design-then-code models."
Ben Glazewski (left) and Tarver Graham.
Graham says it doesn't operate strict departments, but instead has people with different ranges of skills, from strategy, content and design through to code, with a lot of overlap.
"We involve technology people in creative discussions from the outset and we do a lot of our 'design' in working technical prototypes. We like to say everything we do is part of the design process, including ongoing optimisation of content, media, UX, art direction and technology."
While it obviously takes digital craft very seriously—and, judging by the awards its won over the years, is quite adept at it—Glazewski says the agency also understands the way digital tools can transform business models.
"People talk about coming up with ad campaigns that disrupt, but from our perspective when we we talk about digital we might go in and improve supply chain efficiencies by producing a piece of software or an app like InDetail that’s only used internally ... That is where there’s a complete difference in what digital or whatever you call it can do for a business. We can provide a digital response to a business challenge. It could just be brand awareness or marketing from a broad sense, but we can look at a whole range of things."
A number of international corporates often have their spend dictated to them (ie you will dedicate 20 percent of the budget to digital this year). That’s good for all those working in the digital field, of course, but Graham says it’s important to figure out where within that digital ecosystem it makes the most sense to invest. And to do that it tries to understand where the businesses are now and where digital can take them, and offer the right execution to get there.
"We're full service digital, but we’re unashamedly production-led so we tend to want to get out and build, measure, optimise and build again," says Graham.
The rise of gamification has allowed some savvy brands to engage with their customers in a different way and Gladeye has had a few big successes in that space with bespoke social games (House of Travel's Mix and Matcher, "perhaps New Zealand's most successful social game", clocked up 32,000 hours of engagement, GrabOne's Gimme 5 card trading game clocked up 17,000 hours of engagement and Moa's Shout an Olympian campaign also went down well).
"It would be fair to say there aren’t too many others that have delivered the successes and results in terms of what social gaming is ultimately trying to achieve: brand engagement, brand loyalty, chatter, sharing," says Glazewski. "That sort of stuff doesn’t come from taking a third party product and putting a new sticker on it ... What we don’t do is go in with four of five tools and say 'which one of these can we use?'. It’s like that pure suiting they talk about. We need to get in to bed and really understand them and achieve their objectives in the best way."
Glazewski admits that its preference for bespoke solutions means it "cuts its own lunch" from time to time. But it also means it is now well-accustomed to creating international quality work on smal New Zealand budgets.
"It's a little bit like altitude training," says Graham.
The web is littered with big, beautiful and expensive sites and digital campaigns that burn brightly at launch and then tend to fade into obscurity. Social media is also still being experimented with by marketers, although its appeal appears to be fading. Both are sexy and new, however, so that appeal is understandable, but the boring but important things like email and organic search still work and are still far and away the best methods of customer acquisition online in the US, according to McKinsey. Graham says it also does all that digital grunt work, but "it's not the stuff we tend to blow our trumpet about".
"SEO and SEM is just part of being a digital agency. It's not sexy but we do all that."
And Glazewski says its wide range of skills is now being acknowledged, with Air New Zealand recently trusting it with building and launching the Antartica site but also with creating other critical pieces like the banners, the social media assets, and the copy for the Yahoo! advertorial.
Graham says becoming a strategic digital partner rather than a flower arranger that's brought in at the end of the process requires the agency to be much closer to the client's business. And while it is happy to act as a production partner, he says it's important to be at the table from the outset. Currently, it says around 70 percent of its work is direct with clients, and that's the method it prefers because it generates the best work (as Glazewski puts it: "If you want a plumber, go directly to the plumber. Don’t ring the builder and say I need to fix my pipes, because he'll clip the ticket and he’ll try and tell the plumber what to do.")
"We’re looking at a complete ecosystem," says Graham. "If you’re doing individual pieces of work, you miss the opportunity to connect the whole ecosystem. The brand is nothing if not all the interactions that people have with it over time and individual campaigns that aren’t part of it aren’t as effective."
It also works successfully alongside a range of creative agencies (it worked with Saatchi & Saatchi on the ASB Like Loan campaign). But success requires a high degree of collaboration.
"If we’re just on production and they come to us with digital pieces of work they have designed, we’re happy to produce only that, but its not often great. The earlier they come to us with a production idea the better. Occasionally we get agencies coming to us with a photoshop file and saying 'can you code this?', but we won’t do that."
While data seems quite separate from creativity and ad agencies don’t seem to like the idea of their intuition being questioned or their direction challenged, it’s important to use creativity in an effort to turn that data into something interesting or useful. There's certainly no shortage of data available, but Glazewski and Graham feel there is a shortage of insight to ensure brands are measuring the right things rather than measuring everything.
"It’s like running a scientific experiment," Graham says. "You can’t just watch. You need to craft that experiment and have a hypothesis."
As such, it has added some media and analytics muscle to the stable, recently hiring Eddie Rosser, who came from Forsyth Barr and was one of the country's top mathematicians (Graham wasn't far behind), and Chris Andrew, ex Staples Australasia.
"We actually sit in when we launch any website, even our own, and we’ll be looking at the analytics," says Glazewski. "If we see the user has been going through in a different way, we’ll flip it. We're always optimising and A/B testing. Every other day these guys are looking at the performance of websites and how we can improve the user experience."
But while it understands the importance of analytics, Graham says it's also important to "respect the emotional impact" of its work. And, given he and a few other staff come from a film-making background, he says it often takes an almost cinematic approach.
Currently, its mix of science and art seems to be working and its services are in demand, here and increasingly for international clients (although not to the extent of an agency like Resn, which Graham and Glazewski rate very highly). They wouldn't discuss revenue figures, but the 18-strong agency is growing at about 50 percent a year and it’s actively looking for more staff.
That's proving to be quite difficult, however. New Zealand Technology Industry Association chief executive Candace Kinser says the tech industry, which is now worth over $30 billion to New Zealand (it's the third biggest earner behind dairy and tourism), is currently facing a shortage of up to 10,000 workers, so it has created a tech recruitment campaign centred around the website workhere.co.nz. Graham says there’s definitely a shortage at the level Gladeye is looking for and just one in every 20 developers it speaks with are suitable for the company. Thankfully, and as a mark of the loyalty the agency seems to inspire, it’s yet to have anyone it has hired go to a competing agency.