Sunday, December 23, 2007

Top 5 Interactive Agency Websites

I've narrowed down the five most visually impressive interactive agency websites in the web design space. And the winner is...Schematic. But don't you want to know the rest? If you are interested in my analysis parameters and rationale, read on. If you just want to skip to the good stuff, scroll down.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been visiting a lot of interactive agency corporate sites lately. I'm graduating next year from business school, and am considering working on the agency side, having already done the client side for several years.

So, I pulled AdAge's Top 50 interactive agency list* published earlier this year, and visited all the companies mentioned. All 50. It took a while.

Being the nerd that I am, I set up a spreadsheet, evaluating each website on service offerings and overall site impression. For one, I am interested in how each company talks about themselves (are they a digital agency, an interactive experience agency, an internet marketing agency, and what is the difference), and wanted to see trends in service offerings.

But every agency is so all over the board with their service mix (if they even talked about services), audience (healthcare, CPG, entertainment, retail, etc), and focus (being a partner vs a provider). AdAge also lumps a lot of services within interactive, including web design, web strategy, SEO, analytics, social media, technology, content management, etc. Most service titles and descriptions were a lesson in semantics, and I quickly realized it didn't make sense approaching my analysis in such a straightforward way.

I also wanted to see which agency I thought was the most visually impressive (sites that made me say "wow") looking from the perspective of a potential interactive design client. Please note I said design. This does not necessarily take into site navigation, architecture, copy, or content. I didn't read or look at every page on the site. I let the site take me on its own journey, and left when I felt the experience was complete.

So here we go...counting down to #1.

Top 5 Interactive Agency Websites

#5 DRAFTFCB (ranked #9 by AdAge)
At first, DRAFTFCB didn't make my list. I thought the home page was a little self indulgent (leading with their press, and graphics (though cool) relating to their office locations. It also seemed overly stark. It was when I clicked on "Who We Are" that I started to get excited. A video of someone writing in a journal describes the company. The music with the page is a little reminiscent of Beetlejuice, but eerily provacative.

#4 Arc Worldwide (ranked #25 by AdAge)
Arc Worldwide's site was unexpected, from the colors used to the geometric design pattern. A"ping" sounds when you click on different sections. Theirs is a very dynamic site -- a really nice use of scroll-over movement without being overkill. It's easy to read, sophisticated, and professional but not traditional.

#3 Rapp Collins Worldwide (ranked #5 by AdAge)
If you can be patient and let this site take its sweet time to load, the result is an incredibly innovative and impressive design. Rapp Collins' home page was initially super confusing, yet I knew I would love it if only I could figure it out. Which I eventually did (scroll up and down by putting your mouse at the top or bottom of the screen). This site is so gorgeous it should be illegal. I mean, they've designed cell phone flowers with hummingbirds flying in to drink out of them.

This site would have been my number one pick except for two deal breaking reasons. 1) Every page takes forever to load. That may be fine for design connoisseurs with terabytes of RAM and uber fast connection speeds, but my 512 RAM and 1.7GHz, DSL connection made it painful. 2) the "Creative Philosophy" page initially seemed very cool -- personalize the content for your audience. But it required me to fill out a form about myself to move forward, which, beyond the lifetime it took me to load the page, was too much of a time investment.

#2 Wirestone (ranked #43 by AdAge)
I was almost only going to look at the top 30 of AdAge's list, but I'm glad I looked at them all. #43 is #2 on this list because the site is not only visually beautiful (stellar quality and use of case study photography), but loads quickly, is easy to navigate, and above all, it's one of those sites where I feel that what I see is what I'd get from the company. Approachable but excellent. If I were a client or an employee of Wirestone, this site would make me proud to be associated with them.

#1 Schematic (ranked #28 by AdAge)
When I first came to this site, I (shamefully) admit I thought they were trying too hard to be different Aside from the requisite, gorgeous rotating image at the top, there are only large, bullet-point aqua color text links on the page.

But just click on a link, any link -- and don't blink. The page transitions are AMAZING! I don't know how else to express how impressed I was. If you haven't yet clicked on the link to Schematic, here's a visual. Imagine all the pages being printed out and then taped to a large wall in a grid-like pattern, and imagine looking through a video camera as you move from page to page -- up, down, sideways, and diagonally. The photography is also fantastic. So clean, so vivid.

I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed surfing Schematic's site. The visual gymnastics rival only Rapp Collins, but the site is so much more user friendly, it deserves to be #1.

Honorable Mentions
I can't help but mention some other sites that I enjoyed looking at. Resource's portfolio is a beautiful experience to browse through. AKQA leads off with a very well done (and in the case of Fiat, very fun) case study teaser. Brulant has a dynamic and interesting rotating graphic on their home page, and IconNicholson lets a visitor change the home page graphic to one of their own choosing.

It was not always only the visual that impressed me. I couldn't help but read and love Blast Radius' credo page. And Sapient had a very clean and professional site that nicely divided up their core competencies -- interactive and consulting.

Overall Impressions
I really enjoyed this research experience, and gained a lot of insight and perspective looking through these sites. One impression I had was that these agencies were forced to make a definitive positioning decision -- either appeal to a potential client's pragmatic business side, or wow them with design. Many chose to blend these goals and the result is a tame but professional experience. And most tried to weave in language recognizing design for business strategy results.

A second observation was that these agencies listed services like social media, mobile, and analytics alongside more traditional offerings like user experience design, branding/identity, and media planning/buying. I also I found that I really liked having case studies profiled or teased on the home page. And the final take away is that too many sites took too long to load, and often the wait wasn't worth it.

So what companies have I missed? Leave a comment with some of your favorites.

*AdAge determines rank by revenues, and notes % revenue change over previous year