Second Life, the virtual reality world, has witnessed a number of high-level brand defections in recently.
It's not hard to see why: Reebok has had to contend with being attacked by a nuclear bomb, American Apparel is constantly picketed, and the virtual islands created by the likes of Sun Microsystems and Dell are nearly always empty. To cap it all, the most popular items purchased in Second Life are not "First Life" brands, but genitalia.
Brian McGuinness, the vice-president of Starwoods Hotels & Resorts and one of those who recently shut up shop, declared: "There's not a compelling reason to stay."
We don't want to knock Second Life especially, but it is easy to lose track of the number of meetings in which people ask about "buying" ad space in digital environments such as Second Life, without really knowing what Second Life is and without having a good reason for their brand to be there. There are a lot of agencies who are behaving like digital lemmings.
At VCCP, we've always been excited by new advances in interactive digital technologies. We were the first UK creative agency to bring search marketing in-house and to use search in an intelligent, brand-centric way. We were the first UK creative agency to help develop "web mapping", a new digital tool that maps digital voices -who is saying what and where, and ranks their digital influence. We were one of the first UK creative agencies to develop blogger outreach and seeding programs, to open up new ways of connecting and empowering consumers and giving them a voice in a new way.
However, we always tread carefully, digitally. Although totally immersed in the Web 2.0 world full of sites with intriguing names such as Twitter, Ning, Flickr and Pownce, we simply don't believe it does anyone any good to build an agency full of digital lemmings, leaping over digital cliff after digital cliff.
We place a great deal of emphasis on the strategy and insights that go into our digital campaigns. This is because we care a great deal about how brands behave in this new digital environment and we are witnessing a growing sense of grass-roots resentment about this behaviour.
There's a great blog quote that moans about the way in which brands are sucking the life out of these spaces "like a bloodthirsty vampire". The post goes on to say that "most people don't mind advertising, but when it looks more like spam than advertising, you're in deep shit. I'm really worried about how over-advertising is killing even the coolest social spaces."
We make digital creative that has a purpose and adds something unique to or improves the digital experience. Before we sign off any creative, we ask ourselves whether we are creating something useful, and something that people will be interested in and talk to others about - we think a lot about "the value exchange". What consumers are getting in return for engaging with your brand in the digital space.
There is a move towards a different type of digital creativity. We need to become less focused on creating online advertising units, and more focused on developing content, games, widgets and applications. We constantly look at harnessing technology to enable our brands to communicate, share and connect in new and credible ways.
We don't think that we've ever been digital lemmings and we never intend to be. Maybe it's because of the backgrounds of the VCCP founders: Ian (Priest) and Adrian (Coleman) from direct agencies, Charles (Vallance) and Rooney (Carruthers) from advertising agencies and Steve Vranakis, who has a digital creative background, built up over years in San Francisco and on the West Coast. But we've always prided ourselves on the pragmatic, straightforward and utterly integrated way in which we approach creative briefs.
Our job is to connect people and brands in motivating, engaging and effective ways - digital being one of them. Whether online or offline, the fundamentals of brand building and effective consumer engagement still apply. It's just that we have a much broader and richer canvas on which to create a digital environment.
Also, we are resolutely focused on helping our clients to sell: we create work that works. In fact, we have won more IPA Effectiveness Awards, including the Grand Prix and gold, than any other agency our size or age.
How do we do this? Well, we believe that the human brain is the most cluttered place imaginable. Given this fact, we don't think that brands should deliberately set out to be obtuse. People have neither the time nor the inclination to stand in front of a poster for hours, or rewatch a television commercial time after time, trying to decode the message or fit the pieces of the communications puzzle together in their heads.
So we create and build visually iconic "Brand Worlds" for our clients. Think about the O2 Brand World, the Dyson Brand World and the ING Direct Brand World, and see what comes to mind. The moment you see any communications from those brands - online or offline - you know what the brand is and what it stands for. Cover up the logo and you still recognise the brand.
Why would an agency want to take all of these insights, creativity and ideas out of house and create a separate standalone digital unit?
If an agency is not doing this in-house, we truly believe it is simply outsourcing its own future. The majority of interesting new creative approaches to advertising are digital, or at least enabled or enhanced by digital technologies. You have to get your hands dirty in digital to really understand what is going on.
The sooner that digital is seen less as a standalone, pure-play offering and more as an integral integrated piece of a communications solution, the less chance there is of your brand becoming a digital lemming, lying wounded at the bottom of the cliffs of Web 2.0.
Amelia Torode is a planner and the head of digital strategy at VCCP.
AT A GLANCE
Principals: Charles Vallance, Rooney Carruthers, Adrian Coleman, Ian Priest (founding partners)
What's the future for independent agencies? The communications world is changing fast, so you need to be flexible. Independents will deal with it best
How will you be part of it? Our visual narrative approach sets us apart and will bring success for our clients.