Interactive design agency Mook explains its formula for success and the three simple rules for making interactive content successful.

Formed more than four years ago by Tom Adams, Tom Evans, Jess Goodall, Paul Green and Roger Thelwell, Mook was conceived as a small creative boutique with a mission to help clients exploit the new opportunities of the Internet.

“We started working together as a team in the summer of 1999 and developed a shared vision of a consultancy built around creative, technical and communication skills,” explains Roger Thelwell, technical director of Mook. “We took the leap that November and managed to find a parent company, which provided our first six months’ work, offices and many of our initial setup costs.”

The team was offered a management buyout in late summer 2000, which offered the perfect opportunity to grow the business as an independent creative consultancy, says Thelwell.

Now based in offices in Hoxton, London, Mook remains independently owned and run by four of its founding members. With 14 permanent staff onboard, the agency specializes in interactive communications, from Web design and online marketing to digital brand development and content creation.

The name Mook comes from the film Mean Streets by Martin Scorsese, explains Tom Adams, communications director of Mook. In a scene set in a pool hall, Johnny Boy – one of the film’s main protagonists – is called a mook and, although nobody seems quite sure what a mook is, it leads to a full-blown fight.

“It’s also the name of one of our cats with the pink Mook shape logo inspired by the pad of a cat’s paw,” adds Adams.

Kick-starting Mook’s rise to prominence was a successful pitch, against other more established agencies including Razorfish, to develop and maintain Channel 4’s www.4producers.co.uk.

“Our aim was always to work with clients that valued creativity as a business tool, and Channel 4 was at the top of the list,” says Adams. “Our work for the channel set the tone for ongoing business development, and we started to build a reputation for work in the entertainment and broadcast sectors.”

This focus on entertainment, and in turn on youth marketing, has seen Mook work with big name clients including MTV Networks Europe, Unilever Bestfoods, The Sunday Times, the BBC and Camelot and create sites such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Trigger Happy TV, and an episodic interactive cartoon called Action Stan for the launch of E4.com.

“Our work is nearly always consumer facing because it provides the best opportunity to reach large audiences, but we’ve also got experience in the business-to-business sector, because the design and communication challenges can be very specific and interesting,” says Adams.

Survival skills

This adaptability has proved essential in surviving changing industry fortunes agrees Paul Green, Mook’s operations director. “Like many agencies, we’ve expanded and contracted with market fluctuations over the past four years. We started out just before the dotcom bubble burst and had to completely shift our expectations, business model and working practices to adjust to tough market conditions in 2001,” explains Green.

“However, surviving in a sector recession has taught us a great deal about business development, managing overheads and being clever about resources. Above all else, it showed us the importance of nurturing client relationships. And these are all important lessons we’ve carried into our current working practices.”

Mook has created several sites for MTV Networks Europe with its first big project for the client being a MTV Europe Music Awards 2002 voting site. “As well as being creatively challenging and high profile, we had some concrete objectives to meet with this project,” says Adams. Mook’s site saw online voting increase by 80 per cent on the previous year and won the company a Promax gold medal for ‘Best Use of Web’.

Other milestone projects include a short film entitled Flowerbed for this year’s onedotzero film festival, and The Month – The Sunday Times’s monthly interactive CD-ROM. Mook won the later project following a three-way pitch back in January 2003 and has since been responsible for the monthly design and production of the CD.

“Interactive projects don’t come much more exciting and high profile than The Month,” says Green. “It’s creatively driven, has a huge monthly audience and was a global newspaper first. The project has raised our profile with new clients, within the industry and has given us the confidence to address truly business-changing briefs.”

“We’ve learned a great deal developing and managing The Month over the past year and a half,” adds Adams. “We’ve become even more efficient as a company, developing processes and team structures that have helped us in other areas of our work. We’ve pushed Flash to its technical limits, working with content management, video and rich media in ways that test the limits of our knowledge. We’ve also discovered first hand what it’s like to work with editorial teams to tight schedules – using interactive design to perfectly complement the highest quality written content. All of which has helped to hone our design, communication and client relationship skills.”

The project has certainly raised Mook’s profile within the interactive design industry, with The Month winning the company a nomination for a BAFTA Interactive Award.

“There’s nothing more exciting than being nominated for a BAFTA because it reflects the impact of our work on broader audiences,” says Tom Evans of the recent honour bestowed by the industry. “But awards are fickle mistresses, we never depend on them for our sense of pride or as the sole index of the quality of our work. What really motivates us is finding a good creative solution that gets results for our clients – whatever their objectives.

“Saying all that though, we’d run naked down Oxford Street for a Yellow Pencil!” The company has also gained a strong reputation for its Flash animations and games with work that ranges from a multi-episode interactive cartoon for Channel 4 to interactive instants for the National Lottery and online competitions for MTV Networks Europe and The Times.

“Whatever the brief, we always ask ourselves the same question: what will keep our audience entertained and coming back for more?” says Adams. “Once we’ve developed a concept that fits the brand and brief, we then produce simple storyboards or written treatments to help our client understand the idea. This is an essential part of the creative process, not least because it forces us to think through the whole idea and test whether it works creatively before we submit it for approval. Ideas that sound good in meetings can fall flat on their faces when they’re committed to paper or screen.”

According to Adams, successful interactive content comes from following three simple rules.

First make sure it’s easy to use and is compelling. Any more than one page of instructions or back story and you risk losing your audience, he says. Games should have good playability, he adds, as the best way to keep people coming back is to make sure they can improve their performance with experience.

Next, make it fun and entertaining, he says. “Never underestimate the power of comedy and creative flair,” says Adams. “And always make sure that every part of the experience is carefully thought through – from the look-&-feel of the opening screen, to the loading movie and the copywriting. It’s often the little touches that people love.”

Finally, make sure it’s fast loading, says Adams. “Stream as much as you can and break the content up into discrete chunks so content is only downloaded when it’s needed,” he says. “If you’re working with large file sizes, make sure the loading movie says the length of the wait and gives something back in the meantime. Think ‘small rewards as often as possible’.”

The Mook team relies on Macromedia Flash to create interactive content, animations and games because of its versatility and availability as a player says Adams. Other tools in the team’s toolbox included FreeHand and Illustrator for logo designs, typography and layout; Director MX for CD development; and After Effects, Premiere and Final Cut Pro for video projects.

Going forward, Mook has plans to increase its staff levels over the next year as demand from clients grows, and is looking to forge partnerships with other agencies that possess complementary skills in mobile technologies, strategic planning, and TV production.

“Creatively, we’re interested in the convergence of video and interactive design in the broadband and DVD environment,” says Evans. “This includes developing our skills in motion and broadcast graphics.

“We’ve always tried to stay one step ahead of market developments,” adds Adams. “We were giving interviews on Radio 4 about viral marketing before anybody else; we were one of the first companies working with Flash to create interactive animation for a major broadcaster; and more recently we’ve been working with Flash to create dynamic sites using XML and video online.”

MTV Network Europe

Mook has completed several big youth-oriented projects for MTV Europe Networks including a voting site for the MTV Europe Music Awards 2002, a channel site for MTV European and MTV Mobile – site for MTV's SMS service.

“We’re lucky to work with brands that truly understand youth audiences,” says Tom Evans, Mook’s creative director. “So a lot of our work is developed in tandem with the client, building a creative idea and execution that carries the right tone and look for young people – often in several European countries. We also make it our business to stay in touch with youth culture and trends – from fashion to music. And while some of us are getting on a bit, we have lots of youths in the studio to keep things cool and fresh.”

The Sunday Times

Mook worked closely with The Sunday Times from the very start of The Month project for its editorially-driven CD-ROM.

“We needed a design that would appeal to a broad audience yet be flexible enough to meet the rigorous requirements of a monthly production schedule,” explains Paul Green. “This involved everything from design to technical consultancy; from creating an intuitive interface which felt like The Sunday Times, to the development of a bespoke content management system.”

The project was challenging on every level says Green, but in particular in how to handle the transition of an established brand from the print environment to an interactive CD.

“Creatively, we worked hard to achieve a balance between flexibility and an efficient template system,” he says. Each edition has a consistent look, feel and navigation, but allows for creative changes around specific content. This is more like newspaper or magazine design than classic Web development.”

The scale of project was another challenge with over a million copies of the CD produced each month. Mook works to a tight production schedule in close partnership with the newspaper’s marketing and editorial departments.