Inside: Digital Arts Network – global agency, local focus

The Digital Arts Network (DAN) may be a new brand globally, but at least in New Zealand its roots have been around since ages ago, growing out of Shift which was founded in the mid-nineties. Shift became a part of the TBWA advertising network in 2007, and assisted in bringing its marketing arm, Tequila, into the digital world. But DAN’s Che Tamahori says Shift was still its own “digital experience” entity, right up until last year when it joined the global network.

Tamahori was one of the founding employees of Shift, and has seen the company through some major changes working first as a designer, then creative director, and now managing director.

“With Digital Arts Network being launched internationally it was an opportunity for us to bring those [TBWA] teams and those brands back together and to create a more cohesive presence,” says Tamahori, sitting at a table in a relatively small, pillared stone building in Auckland’s CBD.

Tamahori has regular catch-ups with DAN’s 18 offices around the world, and occasionally even heads to conferences in places like Paris and Helsinki, where he visited the offices of Angry Birds’ Rovio and “drank the Kool-Aid – literally, they make Angry Birds soda”. Unlike fellow Kiwi digital agency Resn, Tamahori says the local arm of DAN is sustained mostly by the New Zealand market.

“I think the New Zealand market is actually burgeoning. The global financial crisis and the recession hit a lot of people hard back in 2008, 2009, and for a long time that just made people very cautious about investing anywhere,” he says.

“In those intervening years digital didn’t decrease in importance. I think it’s a high growth area for everyone in this business.” 

DAN certainly doesn’t seem short of work – its current stable of clients include TVNZ, AA Insurance, and Tourism New Zealand, which has worked with DAN since 1999.

The company sustains itself by not  just working on the marketing side. While Tamahori says DAN always has to “nail that first project”, the company has been known to revamp clients’ internal systems, too.

“With something like AA Insurance, we worked with them on their public-facing website, we worked with them on their internal communications, on their intranet, we worked with them on call centre apps, the applications that somebody uses to take somebody through a windscreen claim process over the phone,” he says.

“So you know, customer support, service delivery, marketing – they’re all part of a cohesive product.”

While there may be no shortage of work, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The shift to mobile, and the complications that come with it, mean that DAN has had to completely revise its design process and the way it interacts with clients.

“The most transformative thing in our space at the moment is a shift to responsive design,” says Tamahori. Responsive web design refers to the need to have the layout and look of a given page or application change depending on the device – what looks good on a laptop needs to also look good on an iPhone or tablet.

“It sounds obvious, but it actually changes the entire process by which you decide how things look, how they work, how you communicate back to the client and other stakeholders,” Tamahori says. 

“For the last 15 years people have had a very well honed way of solving that. There were lots of paper-based wire frames, and lots of beautiful Photoshop mockups, but that doesn’t work anymore. Not when the page may look four or five different ways.”

And different operating systems cause different issues – Apple devices, for example, are relatively easy to work with because there are only a set number of sizes and resolutions. Android phones and tablets, on the other hand, can vary much more drastically from device to device. The differences between mobile and desktop is another hurdle, it’s not only a difference in size but supported technologies. For instance, DAN’s latest work for insulation manufacturer Knauf gives a beautiful desktop experience rich in HTML5 goodness – but it translates poorly (or not at all) to iOS, which doesn’t render parallax effects the same way modern desktop browsers do.

Testing on Android devices is also hard, which is why TVNZ’s OnDemand app for Android hasn’t yet seen the light of day – or a backlit screen – despite being built on technology that can deploy to both iOS and Android. ​

But the bigger challenge, like in almost any job, is not a technical one but a political one. During our time together, Tamahori often talks about the difficulties of explaining to clients what they do and don’t need, and what the limitations and ramifications of a project might be. He’s fascinated by business problems, he says, and when DAN works on a project he wants to solve his clients’ problems too.

“People still come to us and say, ‘We want an app’. And wanting an app isn’t a problem, it’s a solution,” he says.

“The first question we ask is always going to be ‘why?’”

Further reading:

Tourism New Zealand and DAN puts essential New Zealand in your pocket

Tourism New Zealand’s fantastical Hobbit fest takes top tourism award

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