NEW MEDIA: DESIGN AND CREATIVE - Branding the online shops. Are new-media agencies succeeding in establishing distinct brands? James Curtis asks the top five independents to choose the London building that best sums up their ethos

Brands are a big problem in the overcrowded new-media world. Consumers are faced with thousands of funky names, such as Buzz, Beenz, BOL and Breathe. With e-brands launching all the time, people are left with a head full of names, but little idea of what they do. The situation is best illustrated by the ill-fated clothes retailer Boo.com. According to research by MORI, 55 per cent of consumers had no idea what it did.

The danger of the meaningless new-media brand is not confined to e-commerce.

It's also a trap waiting to snare the growing army of agencies competing for internet business. In this space, there are hundreds of brands hoping to hook business with equally vague propositions. Choosing a random few, there's Razorfish, Swordfish, Fish, Oyster, Fortune Cookie, Snow Valley and Green Cathedral. No wonder choosing a new-media agency is said by many clients to be a devilishly head-scratching business.

Mike Moran, the marketing director of Toyota, says he speaks for many of his peers. 'I'd say there's very little clear perception of which new- media agencies are good at what. With ad agencies, I know what Saatchi & Saatchi stands for and what HHCL & Partners' skills are but, in new media, I couldn't tell you, for example, what Razorfish is about. Agencies have to get a lot better at differentiating themselves, especially if they want a piece of my action,' he complains.

It's slightly unfair to expect web agencies to have tightly defined brands in such a new area. Many are still less than two or three years old, with the market leader, AKQA, only dating back to 1995. Advertising and direct marketing agencies have heritage and a body of work with which to define themselves, whereas new-media shops are still building their portfolios.

However, new media is rapidly bedding down into a mature sector, giving leading characters the chance to stand out.

Arguably, established agencies such as Ogilvy, Saatchis and BMP have an advantage in the new- media world, as clients recognise and trust their names. After a slow start, many are now establishing themselves in the rankings, especially Ogilvy Interactive, ehsrealtime and Tribal DDB (formerly BMP Interaction). For example, Ogilvy Interactive claims to have 2,000 people working for it in the global OgilvyOne network. The OgilvyOne London chairman, Nigel Howlett, says that the 'genuine brand confusion' in the new-media agency area will be eased once established players such as Ogilvy begin to make their mark.

However, Terry Hunt, the chairman of ehsrealtime, says that the old rules of well-defined agency brands will be much harder, if not impossible, to replicate in the new-media world. 'The days of fiercely honed agency brands, such as CDP, are gone. Media has changed and fragmented so much that it's very dangerous for an agency to say: 'This is what we do and here's how we do it to the exclusion of all else.' Agencies have to make themselves flexible and do what the client requires, not what they say he requires.'

Hunt has good cause to think about these issues since EHS merged with the new-media agency Real Time and rebranded as ehsrealtime. He says that the brand is built around the concept of 'me-commerce', applying EHS's reputation for one-to-one marketing to any communication channel that consumers choose to use.

However, there are disadvantages facing established agency brands competing in new media. One of the biggest is combating client suspicion that they are straying from their area of core competence. Moran says: 'I still don't think there's any such thing as a full-service agency. The further an agency strays from its core competence, the more I think it doesn't know its onions. That particularly applies to new media.'

This is where the new-media specialists are at an advantage. They can, at least, claim to be web experts. Agencies coming into new media from different areas, such as advertising, direct marketing and PR, often have to work harder to convince clients of their credentials.

For example, some PR agencies argue that many clients have got over the technological hurdle of designing and building sites and they need help with improving their content. The PR agency GCI has set up a new-media arm, GCI Digital Communications, to concentrate on this area.

Richard Gilbert, the director of GCI Digital Communications, says that having the credibility of the GCI brand behind him is very important.

However, he admits that GCI's reputation as a PR agency is also sometimes a barrier when it comes to clients' perceptions of its new-media capabilities.

'We feel we have stronger competencies for guiding communications activity on the web than many new-media agencies, especially as clients are, increasingly, looking for greater integration between their offline and online programmes,' he says. 'The challenge we face is that it's often easier for clients to understand what new-media agency brands offer, even though we can probably help them more.'

As the new-media industry matures, it's likely that the blurry agency brand landscape will become more defined. Much will depend on how successful web agencies are at extending their design and build skills into strategic consultancy, and, likewise, how agencies from other backgrounds persuade clients that they have developed meaningful new-media skills.

Given their head start, there's no reason to think that new-media specialists will not continue to prosper as they mature. But they will face stiff competition from established agency names who will steadily gain business as clients move on to the next stage of their new-media development. That will require much more than a web design agency, and there will be a call for suppliers to take a more holistic and integrated approach to their clients' business.



QUIDNUNC

Having been around for 12 years, Quidnunc is something of an old-timer compared with its short-trousered rivals. Quidnunc's heritage is rooted in its technological capability, having started its life advising businesses on custom software solutions before evolving into the e-solutions market in 1996.

Nowadays, it claims to have equal strength in creative design and strategic consultancy.

High-profile clients include Marks & Spencer, which it has taken into online sales, and Direct Line, for which it launched a retail site, Jamjar.com.

Joel Goren, the chief marketing officer, chose the Tate Modern as the place that best symbolises the Quidnunc brand. 'We believe that the Tate Modern is a prime example of a successful combination of old bricks and mortar with the new to create a unique visitor experience. This integration is similar to what we help our corporate clients to achieve,' he says.



AKQA

AKQA has managed to make itself a premium brand in the new-media agency sector and, according to its 27-year-old founder Ajaz Ahmed, it takes its branding seriously.

Ahmed chose to be photographed at Niketown, which is the mecca of one of his highest-profile clients.

He says: 'AKQA is about creating the future. We are dedicated to innovation and the passion required to create a great product. Niketown encapsulates that essence.'

He adds that working for such prominent brands - others include BMW, Microsoft and Orange - helps to enhance AKQA's premium positioning in the market.

Calling itself a full-service agency, the independent AKQA has a strong reputation for both creativity and technical know-how. An example of its technical expertise is its proprietary ad-serving system, Analyst, developed with Microsoft.

AKQA's brand is based on four core values: innovation; service; quality and thought. It also has five key beliefs, laid down when it formed five years ago:

- Only fools rush in;

- It's good to be first, it's better to be good, it's best to be both;

- Being effective is more important than being digital;

- The new economy isn't about technology, it's about ideas;

- The new economy needs new thinking.



RAZORFISH

The Razorfish managing director, Mike Beeston, refers to the agency's 300 staff as 'fish'.

Forty per cent of these fish are technologists, with a strong reputation for website design and build. Clients include NatWest and FT.com. However, thanks to its rapid growth and strategic acquisition, Razorfish claims to have equal strengths in front-end design, technical delivery and strategic consultancy.

Peeling back the layers of what he calls his 'brand onion', Beeston says that Razorfish's mission is to 'bring to life the power of digital technology to create competitive value for organisations and new meaning in their relationship with stakeholders'.

An important differentiator for Razorfish is its international reach.

It has offices in 15 countries with a regular interchange between employees. This,Beeston claims, helps clients gain strategic advantage with worldwide expertise.

Beeston says that the Lloyds Building sums up the Razorfish brand. 'It is a bold, visionary statement that was delivered into a conservative environment. The design problem was considered from the roots up instead of just building another bank,' he adds.



PROXICOM

Having recently acquired the UK new-media shop Clarity, Proxicom is now trying to establish its strong US brand in the UK and Europe. The Clarity name has gone, leaving Proxicom a lot to do in raising its profile.

However, its European vice-president, Martin Chilcott, is quite clear about what the Proxicom brand stands for. 'We help old-economy corporations convert their businesses to survive in the new economy. We specialise in large transformational projects for big corporations.'

Examples include turning Abbey National into an e-enabled bank with Cahoot and helping BT implement a customer relationship management structure.

These are typical of the projects it takes on. Chilcott says: 'Clarity was moving in this direction and Proxicom's size allowed it to accelerate the process.'

Chilcott chose the new Wellcome Wing of the Science Museum as the location for his photo because it represents issues that are core to Proxicom's brand. These are: the past evolving into the future; the cultural, social and economic impact of technology and the close relationship between creativity and technology.



ZINC

Zinc started life in 1996 as an offshoot of the direct marketing agency Evans Hunt Scott.

Now largely independent of EHS, Zinc has built a name for itself working for such blue-chip companies as Virgin Atlantic, Vodafone and Microsoft.

Its founders, Ken Frakes and Georgia Hall, say their unique selling point is experience and integration. Frakes, an ex-designer and Hall, an ex-marketer with Tower Records, say their depth of experience on both client and agency sides gives them an edge that others lack.

They're serious about offering a total solutions package, having launched Zinc Space, an in-house digital media planning and buying division. They also claim that the agency has equal strengths in marketing, programming and web hosting.

The Zinc duo chose to be photographed near Piccadilly's Rock Circus, where a model of Hall's teen idol Marc Bolan is situated. Hall says: 'I used to be a T-Rex fan and Think Zinc is one of their songs.' Hall adds that the element zinc has qualities shared by the brand: 'Zinc heightens the senses, giving you a clearer perception of life. It's strong, flexible and versatile. When it burns, it is very bright.'