Lateral way of thinking is certainly not obsolete

Jon Bains, a director of closed Web design agency Obsolete, is back and determined not to make the same mistakes with Lateral, his new agency. New Media is edited by Michael Kavanagh, who can be contacted on

When news filtered out in May of the demise of Web design agency Obsolete, it was taken as a sign of the fragility of the fortunes of even the most lauded new media agencies.

The three directors of the UK-based Web design shop used by Levi-Strauss announced they had decided to go their own ways, after Levi’s decided to switch command over the account from Obsolete, to US advertising group True North.

Now Jon Bains, one of the three Obsolete directors, is back, promoting his new agency Lateral with a slice of Levi’s online advertising work to support him.

“We have spent the past couple of months trying to get set up in a more structured way,” says Bains, who admits that Obsolete, like a lot of similar-sized agencies, faced problems handling major accounts with its initial limited resources.

“I didn’t want to fall into the trap of growing too quickly like Obsolete, and not knowing how to handle it,”says Bains.

“We want to have a six, seven or eight-man operation, keeping it small at the moment. That still means we should be able to take on global brands, but by working in alliance with other specialist agencies.”

This more business-like approach has also been adopted by fellow Obsolete director Kim Bull, who left to set up the Zero Degrees shop under the auspices of well-established UK corporate Web shop Corsellis Montford.

Bains, who continues to act as co-creative director on the account despite the switch in lead global online agency, is responsible for a new wave of so-called “I-Candy” animated ads for Levi’s which break this week on selected Internet sites.

The technique is aimed at delivering high-impact ads, which don’t necessarily require Web surfers to waste time moving away from their original destination site to view an online plug on an advertiser’s own corporate site.

According to Bains, Lateral will continue to devote research and development into creating high-impact but non-obtrusive Web advertising techniques for clients.

Lateral has also recently completed an overhaul of the Body Shop’s Website, as well as handling Web design for corporate client Spectrum Strategic Consultancy.

The Body Shop project was a “quick redesign gig”, says Bains. “It didn’t have the kind of budget to pull it down and start again – it’s more of a bit of band aid.”

It is indicative of the kind of more focused consultancy or specialist role Bains believes smaller Web shops must adopt to keep their heads above water. And this should also help to counter the growth of the ad agency-backed new media networks which will inevitably dominate spend on the Web.

“Our market niche is still pretty broad,” he says. “But we are seeing a split between global agency structures which require hundreds of staff, and at the same time smaller operations are opting to go into more specialised roles.”

Bains currently spends one week a month in San Francisco working on the Levi’s account. The trans-atlantic commuting suits Bains, born in New York and then raised in Scotland.

But despite his US connections, Bains is still a Europhile when seeking new Web projects. “Budgets aside, the European market is better because the creative ground is still being formed here. The market is a lot less cynical,” he says.

“Clients are still willing to give people space to do creative work. Sites out of New York all look the same – I find it all a bit American. I think it’s time for Europeans to make their mark on the Net, although I am obviously happy to get US clients as well as European ones.”

The one advantage of the US, he adds, is that at least budgets are more buoyant for agencies offering Web support for global brands.

“In the US, demand is still greater than supply,” according to Bains. “But clients are getting wise to the growth in new shops, so if you say you will do something for X, they say there’s a guy who will do it for less.”

“It’s becoming a buyer’s market. We are always going to be undercut by a guy in his bedroom, or someone who’s hungry. The only response to that is establishing your credibility and justifying your money.”

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