SOMETHING’S going on up there, in the blue building perched next to the Tyne Bridge.
They can’t always tell you what it is, but there’s a sense that interesting experiments are bubbling away at 55 Degrees North, the home of self-styled “digital innovation agency” TH_NK.
It’s the curse of the agency, it seems. For months, you’re sitting on a project that’s got you buzzing, but you can’t tell anyone why you’re bouncing up and down like a bowl of jelly strapped to a rodeo bull.
While the details are often under wraps, TH_NK is currently beavering away on “digital innovation” projects with the likes of Sony, The Sun newspaper, Formica, Audi, Bupa, Blackberry and the BBC.
Back in the day, it was more of a web design firm. However, it’s spent the last few years re-styling itself as a “digital innovation agency”, with a broader scope and its own strategy team.
It’s got offices in Newcastle and London, and is looking to boost its workforce significantly in the near future.
So what does a “digital innovation agency” actually do?
“We do a whole range of things”, says chief executive Tarek Nseir.
“We’ve earned a reputation for our ability to deliver digital strategy and really big digital ideas.
“We used to be a web design agency. We still do that, but the web design market is highly commoditised and we’ve had to evolve the business fast and hard.
“There hasn’t been a single project which is the same as another, and it’s been that way for the last three years.”
In business terms, TH_NK offers clients a range of services which help them reach customers and get their attention.
There are digital marketing services such as email marketing, mobile, search engine optimisation and web analytics.
There’s strategic planning, as well as industry and business analysis. There’s creative design and copywriting, technical design and development, and even hosting services and maintenance.
What makes the company really interesting, Nseir says, is that it usually gets to use its imagination, cooking up projects which encourage clients and customers to interact in a completely new way.
“The pillars that make up digital for a business aren’t going to change in the near future. The challenge is how to approach it in a different way. What if you can use digital to create a brand new relationship with customers?
“For example, an agency could help a bank to make its online banking better, or it could step above that and start looking at what it could do with digital to conceive an entirely different way of banking; an entirely new set of products that might be more socially conceived.
“What’s often most exciting is when the brief is to define the brief; when we’re asked: ‘What should we be doing in digital?’, rather than ‘Can you build us a mobile app?’
“We’ve used digital to help clients not only to deliver their ambition but to refine their ambition.”
It’s this focus on innovation that put it at the head of the queue for one of its most anticipated projects.
Back in June, TH_NK got international attention as part of the development team for Pottermore, the free-to-use website which will build an online world around JK Rowling’s famous Harry Potter books.
In late March, the Pottermore Shop started selling titles in the Harry Potter series in eBook format. This in itself was hailed as a big step in digital publishing, but there’s more to come.
TH_NK has been working with partners such as Sony, Bloomsbury and author JK Rowling to create an online universe with gaming elements and extra material from Rowling itself.
The project has been pencilled in for an “early April” launch, but details are closely guarded.
While Nseir says he can’t say much at this point, he did mention back in July that the “fundamental brief was to encourage reading in the new generation” and to make an accompaniment to the fiction which was “social and interactive”.
Other media and arts clients on its roster currently include ITV and CBBC.
“We’re doing a lot more work in the media and entertainment space, and Pottermore has been an amazing experience”, says Nseir. “It’s always more fulfilling to be working on something that entertains people rather than something that just works.
“TV and entertainment are being disrupted by the dawn of connected TV and big digital content delivery mechanisms such as Netflix. For example, Sky has been moving out of the set top box world and into the digital space, while Netflix has been commissioning its own content to disrupt the market further.
“The linear broadcast world is going to be revolutionised beyond anyone’s experience in the next couple of years.”
TH_NK launched in 2002 and moved to its current base at 55 Degrees North in 2004.
It opened an office in London in 2008, and has been spending a lot of time in the United States.
It currently employs 78 staff in Newcastle, all of which Nseir describes as “digital natives”, performing a range of functions from designing to managing clients; from laying out strategy to website building or copywriting.
“The way we make ourselves successful is by making sure that whatever the client needs, we have the skills there to deliver that. We know what each individual in the team can bring to the business. It’s a full service digital agency with innovation at its centre.”
TH_NK is currently on the hunt for around 30 new staff in the North East, ranging from web and mobile app developers to project managers and database administrators.
While the company is confident of picking up some interesting projects in the near future, it’s also making changes to the way it works.
“In our past, we were very much the design and build agency that created the website, rather than the marketing campaign. Then, of course, digital evolved from a marketing tool into something that could change business.
“We do a lot of projects and we do them very well, but we do them from a very specific angle. A lot of the time we tend to conceive a very cool piece of digital innovation rather than a really cool campaign.
“However, we’re looking to change that, so we’re recruiting in our creative team this year.
“Another thing we’ve not made a big investment in is our mobile apps. TH_NK regularly develops mobile websites, but we always made the assumption that while apps were growing, we’d eventually return to the ubiquitous experiences inside browser windows.
“We believed if we honed our skills in things like HTML5, the mobile app would be a flash in the pan. I’m happy to admit we got it wrong.
“At this point in time, creating a ubiquitous and responsive design in HTML5 is still a challenge. Mobile apps mean you can have a beautifully-created mobile experience that requires very little connectivity. They’ve established themselves as a feature of our everyday lives now.”
So what developments in technology does Nseir expect to see in the near future?
He’s intrigued by the potential of social commerce, in which businesses reward customers for referring others to a service.
He’s excited about the prospects for “transmedia”, or telling a single story across multiple digital platforms. And he’s got a personal passion for the concept of home automation, and what a house and its contents might be able to do in future.
As for TH_NK itself, he’s got two big focuses.
“I always want to be growing, and the quality of work we’re producing is important. I think the two are important in that order, because one feeds the other.
“It was only about one and a half years ago when we were feverishly trying to bring people into the agency, but we go to events now and the people are coming to us to say how fantastic our work is.
“Today our customers come to us because they know if they work with us they’ll get a far better result.
“We’ve spent the last four years focusing on how we become an innovation partner, and there are few agencies in the world able to provide that.
“Right now we’re looking for technologists; we’re looking for people who are happy to be part of a team. What we have to offer them is a great working environment in a great city, and the chance to work on some of the world’s most exciting projects.”