POKE Founder / ECD & Lovie Awards Judging Chairman
5 Minutes with… Nicolas Roope
POKE Founder / ECD
Lovie Awards Judging Chairman - deadline for 2012 entries is Friday 20th July
Interviewed by LBB editor, Gabrielle Lott
LBB> Talk to me about Poke and what it is about that makes it so special and unique?
NR> When we started Poke, we had already been through quite big digital agencies. As in, we’d started our own digital agencies, they’d got big, had got all grown-up and international and sexy and then they’d all died, because the dotcom bubble blew up and took us with it. We were suddenly back to nothing again and, having been along for the ride, which was very fun, and we put a lot of energy in to those businesses, but they were just flawed for a whole bunch of reasons. One thing that we were disappointed by was just how we ended up doing lots of work that we didn’t believe in, and in a manner that we didn’t think was very productive. So, in a way we put a curtain on our very rapid ascensions that actually gave us a fresh start and gave us an opportunity to do it right - which is what we did.
So, when Iain Tait, Peter Beech, Nick Farnhill, Simon Waterfall and myself - and Tom Hostoer (http://bit.ly/NdENdF
) started off, we just wanted to get back to basics and make the work that we thought was creatively interesting. But, we also needed to address what you need to address as a commercials business, which is to make that creativity work for clients and solve problems within the realm of digital - which is bloody complicated and also, incredibly exciting. We wanted to focus back on really strong, cut through ideas and recognise that when you’re on the internet you’re competing against everything else and therefore you just have to be bloody good, or bloody interesting, or bloody funny or bloody scary; whatever it is that you have to be to be the strongest and Poke is very much built on that, and works with that principle still.
LBB> You have a background in Fine Art and Sculpture. How is it that you came to work within digital?
NR> When I left art school in Liverpool, where I studied conceptual art and sculpture, I came back to London, where my brother was involved in an art group called ‘Antirom’. It was a very early, digital art group (http://bit.ly/L5OSYi
), which was headed by the late Andy Cameron. They were trying to raise some Art Council funding and needed more artists in their group. So, my brother said, ‘do you want to be my group?’ and I said, ‘sure, but I have to be in the group, I’m not just going to stick my name on it so you can get some arts funding’.
That project was pretty successful; lots of arts recognition and, eventually, we started attracting clients like Levi’s, Guinness, Caterpillar… all these young brands who knew that digital media was going to be an important platform for them. We formed a company out of the arts group and were closely involved with seminal techno group The Underworld and associated design group Tomato. It was a really trendy time and we were doing some really interesting work and that was really how I got my foot in the door. I did a brief stint at a company before that called CHBi which turned into European Razorfish. Then I went onto a place called Oven Digital, which was an 18 month, crazy time… It grew up to 75 people in London; so I was running the office and creative director at the international group… and then I had to fire everybody, including myself all within 18 months. So, it gives you a bit of a picture as to what those times were like and out of the ashes of that, we formed Poke. It’s a potted history, but with Poke being in our 11th year, that’s a 17 year process (Nik’s career) all in.
LBB> How important are awards to Poke?
NR> I think that awards are incredibly important but I wouldn’t say that for all awards. I think that awards can be very positive, in the sense that we are in a complicated world and it’s very difficult for clients to understand what makes sense to do, and what doesn’t make sense to do. They don’t know what they should aim for, what the standards are…all those things. The only things that clients and peers in the industry have, to understand what is happening and what the standards are, what the media is saying, what the trades say, what we are saying to each other… are the awards.
Awards focus people’s attention into things that we think are the exemplars of success; whether that’s creative success or any other success. The next question, obviously, is that is depends what those awards are and what they are awarding, what their perspectives are and whether those perspectives are helpful or not, in defining what success is. So, if you have awards that are recognising the wrong stuff – that’s not very helpful. It’s a sign to everybody that you should be doing more of this stuff, which if it’s wrong, is obviously negative. I would say that good awards are a positive force and not very good awards are a negative force.
NR> The Lovie Awards are the sister awards programme to the Webby Awards in the States. It’s a European only awards – that is, that we only recognise work that has been made in, and for the European community. Obviously, it is the internet so the reach can be global, but it’s a real focus on Europe and specifically, in response to the real sort of problem with awarding European work, which is languages – we engage the languages. So, we judge in five languages at the moment and we will add more languages. Great works get made in Europe that just don’t get recognised on an international level because of language. If you’ve created an awesome French site, it’s just not going to score well in the international shows and not everyone speaks Greek!
In recognising that, we’ve designed a system whereby we can create critical mass of speakers within the juries, float the great stuff up to the top and then normalise the scores and make sure that everyone gets fair representation. So, it means that people in Germany can compete internationally across Europe, with work that can be experienced fully - so all the references, all the meaning contained within the language - which is often a lot - can rise to the top. That competition is really important within Europe. Because of the language, the divides are almost as strong as the physical divides. There is very little discourse and collaboration across border, which we are hoping to dissolve a little bit both with the Lovies and Internet Week Europe. It’s great for the awards but it’s also a prompt and, hopefully, a sort of stimulus to get more of a cross over within Europe.
LBB> What is your role within the Lovies?
NR> I am the Jury Chair for The Lovies and I’ve held that role since the awards started. We partnered with the body that established the Webbys in NYC and the IADAS, which is the International Academy for Digital Arts and Science, who are the permanent jury that look at the Webbys. So they judge the Webbys. We have a Europe IADAS wing that we are building and I am effectively heading up the establishment of that group.
So, it’s a permanent jury; most juries are put together year after year, they change every year. We have a permanent jury and it’s a much larger jury. So, at the moment it’s about 220 people on the jury and we are building that and the reason being is that we very carefully selecting jury members to really span the breadth that the awards span. It’s not only a creative awards, it’s an excellence awards, which runs across multiple categories. We do have advertising, but we also have websites, mobile, tablet and so on. It can really contain everything – provided, of course that it reaches a benchmark of excellence. The jury has to be as wide as that in order to recognise great work, effectively. The permanence of that jury means that we tend to have more seasoned, more experienced people, not just the hot shots of the year and therefore, it gives you a broader perspective on what really works and what doesn’t work. Not to be caught up in the fashions of the year, which you can see a lot with other award shows.
LBB> In the last 12 months is there any work that Poke has created that has really resonated with you, that you’ve really loved?
NR> The thing that I am really excited about is that there is still a really diverse set of projects at Poke and that’s one of the things that makes Poke, Poke. We are very broad creatively and I think it’s what strengthens us, the fact that we do these big, infrastructural designs, you know, big sort of conceptual, architectural projects.
So, Mulberry at the moment – we are 19 months into the complete re-launch, re-platforming of Mulberry, to bring the whole standard across all of their channels: ecommerce, digital communications – the standard that everything else will follow, dealing with the multiple markets; really sort of intricate, complex technology, design and structure. That’s still in process and we shall see that launch, hopefully towards the end of the year.
Then we have these much smaller bite sized things like Mavi (http://bit.ly/JynIy8
) who are the fourth biggest jeans maker in the world by volume. It is a Turkish brand and they are beginning to really up their ambitions, in terms of international growth. We took their not-so-great-site and brought the whole thing onto tumblr, because obviously tumblr is beginning to become such an important platform within fashion. As they weren’t using it really for ecommerce, mainly as a marketing channel, we thought, let’s just take everything onto tumblr. Then everybody can just pick their stuff up and share it within their communities and it can just exhilarate the whole uptake and sort of ping it into the fashion opinion formation, if you like. It’s been great. It’s been a very quick turn around.
We’re also working with a NASDAQ publicly listed company in Turkey called Turkcell, the fourth biggest mobile operator in Europe on their youth platform. Again, a very different project and, in this instance, with quite a long turn around.
LBB> Turkey again?
NR> Yes, well for some reason we seem to have a great reputation out there without any actual presence. So, we’ve started working with a few Turkish clients and we’re finding it is a very interesting market with half the population being under 27 years of age. It’s big. Istanbul is a mega city – there are 18 million people living there. It’s one of the only countries in the whole region that is experiencing real growth; so it’s an exciting place to be.
‘Phone Fund’ with Orange (http://bit.ly/JkQ91a
), which was a physical installation populated by tweets that we did earlier this year that had a real classic Poke project feel to it and yet again, was very different in contrast with the other things that we are doing.
We also have a few secret projects that we are doing that are of a reasonable scale that I believe we will look back at, talk about and shall be able to see how they add to the story, in regards to diversity. At the same time, they are really interestingly shaped problems that because of our size we can really attack at different angles and really make sense of them.
LBB> With Poke, you guys are famous for your own projects like The Global Rich List (http://bit.ly/aAkUxR). Many agencies are launching their own brands and products and some people criticise this and think it’s a PR stunt, others are totally behind it and going great guns themselves. What’s your take and where you have done this, what has it brought to the agency?
NR> We’ve always done it and most of the things that we’ve done like that have been pretty successful and have more than paid back the investment in time and energy in making them. I think that they are incredibly useful and incredibly powerful, so I completely understand why a lot of people are doing it – it makes perfect sense. We all know how constraining the client relationship is. Not just because necessarily it’s the relationship, but because of the tasks that we are trying to solve. You don’t have total freedom and I think it is very easy for us to sit there and say ‘we know better. We could do it like this. We could do it like that’. But at the end of the day, it’s the clients business we’re messing with and so, naturally, it is going to be constraining.
Doing your own projects allows you to showcase what you really think and what you are really capable of. When they prove [successful], that’s a really powerful tool to [illustrate] the capabilities of the agency and to take to existing clients and say ‘well, we tried it and it worked’. It is a great sign to the market of how you think and particularly if those things are successful that you do possess some sort of insightful abilities that mean you can take clients to interesting places, produce really interesting resonant thoughts that are successful and that’s obviously, incredibly powerful.
So, I’d say, whether you’re creating your own product and brand or you’re just putting ideas out there – it’s all the same thing, it’s all a form of expression that is allowing you to attack things creatively, in a different way, in a pure way and if those things succeed then they are great exemplars to talk back to the market about doing things in different ways, it produces these sort of successes.
I believe that when you are going for a proper product, when you’re really trying to launch a business, the agency environment is not necessarily the right one to really drive and create a successful product. Clients are always our number one concern and actually, to sustain and grow a business is a dedication and I think a lot of agencies that do start off, on their own, producing products will probably have to spin those things out and really build a unit around them or wind them down. It’s very difficult to sustain those things within an agency environment without some separation. Actually, if you do spin them out, that’s a great story still. We’ve tried various things in the past, things like Bakertweet (http://bit.ly/heVg0O
) where we thought ‘what about if we productise this, get it on iPads and get it into the supermarkets. But after looking at the practicalities of making this happen, it starts to look like a very expensive endeavor and something where you start to look at the product in a very different way. Bakertweet was a very quick, happy thing. If you want to productise something, suddenly you are looking at a very different level of investment and you then have to ask the other question, which is, what are those returns going to look like? How is it going to work? Is that a sustainable proposition? That’s also where it becomes quite boring as well. I personally, run a couple of product businesses myself that are outside of Poke and they work well, they’re great.
So, it is possible to do that.
LBB> Tell us a bit more about your businesses…
NR> There’s Hulger (http://bit.ly/4U00k
), which are consumer products. We used to make a lot of telephones and now we make lots of designer light bulbs under the brand Plumen (http://bit.ly/4vEDaT
). I think that experience has been invaluable in understanding the interaction between a product business and all the forces that the web allows, both in terms of sort of social awareness, but also in terms of sales distribution. I believe that all agencies should tinker and do their own things because I think it is absolutely invaluable.
LBB> Do you love what you do and if so, why?
NR> I totally love what I do and the reason being is that I am a creative person and being in digital, which still is unfolding, complexifying, the opportunities are growing day after day after day. Despite living a constant fight to try to respond to that and grow with it; the rewards are enormous from a satisfaction point of view. To have such scope and the opportunities to do work that breaks new ground, every time, is great.
As a creative person why would you not want to be in that position? At times it is a little bit lonely and it can be very harsh at the front line because obviously by [virtue] of breaking new ground you are also somewhere in risky territory – where people aren’t comfortable, where things haven’t been done before… It’s still very fulfilling and thrilling to be doing that. It’s been 17 years and it’s no less exciting now then it was in the beginning. I started when pictures got switched onto the internet and we all knew the potential was there then, but now, looking forward there is no lesser a sense of awe or wonder about what is to come. I’ve just turned 40 this year and if I work another 30 /40 years it will keep me busy and occupied and interested and inspired. So, yes, absolutely… I’ve backed the right horse.