In the rarified niche of digital production companies—those that focus on high-end, one-off advertising campaigns—Stinkdigital may have carved out a niche of its own: interactive film. Many firms use the medium, of course, but Stinkdigital is arguably the best at it.
The reason may seem simple at first. Stinkdigital is an offshoot of Stink proper, a global commercial production company that regularly contends for all the major awards in the industry. But according to founding partner Mark Pytlik, film production and interactive make for a tough marriage—from the culture forward. Production companies typically run like talent agencies that rely heavily on freelancers. You can even find some of them working out of bare-bones offices with thick Rolodexes.
“But interactive doesn’t exactly work that way,” he explains. “You have to make an investment in technologists, creatives and designers, and really be willing to invest in establishing more of a creative culture.”
Still, it’s not surprising Stink gave it a shot. Since its founding by Daniel Bergmann in 1999, the company has specialized not only in making great commercials, but also with out-of-the-box business ideas. Notably, it first embraced the idea of using global (think Eastern European) directors for British commercial work. It has other side ventures too, including a branch that represents fine artists for corporate work.
The digital story dates to 2007, when Pytlik was working as an associate editor at Boards, a now-defunct Canadian advertising magazine. He met Bergmann at several industry events, and a fast friendship soon developed. That eventually led to an invitation to help launch a digital offering in London. But while Pytlik first worked for Stink producing traditional web films, he soon saw an opportunity for something bigger.
“Instead of making viral films,” he says, “We could offer design and development, and pair that offering with our roster of directors to create more rounded interactive experiences. The idea was to continue to make great content, but with an emphasis on making it work interactively.”
Stink decided to take the plunge, but the timing was not ideal. Stinkdigital opened its London office in early 2009, right on the heels of the financial crisis. Thanks to all the upheaval, the firm spent the first six weeks of the year without seeing a single brief. But when one came, it was, without a doubt, The One.
Advertising agency Tribal DDB Amsterdam was launching a campaign for Philips that promoted a new, 21:9 aspect ratio television (in layman’s terms, it had the same proportions as a movie screen). They needed something bold and cinematic that would live online—exactly the kind of project that Stinkdigital dreamed of doing.
The resulting interactive film, “Philips Carousel”, became one of most talked about advertisements of 2009. Directed by Adam Berg, it featured a single tracking shot that depicted a frozen moment in a pitched gun battle between cops and clown-masked robbers. It quickly went viral and eventually garnered the Grand Prix at Cannes.
Not a bad start, but also a telling one. For the site, Stinkdigital kept the interaction simple. It showcased the movie and provided the ability to reveal stories about the product and the production. Beyond its obvious entertainment value, “Philips Carousel” was the essence of a good brand story: interesting, informative and well worth passing around.
“The thing we’ve been lucky with over the last three years,” says executive producer James Britton, “is that it’s become increasingly possible to present video online at a quality that does justice to our directorial talent.”
Doing justice, however, does not mean that Stinkdigital simply provides a wrapper for the work of good directors. Only about 50 percent of Stinkdigital’s projects involve film, and the ones that do always require heavy integration with the firm’s own art directors, technologists and developers.
“Shooting for a non-linear experience is a lot different from shooting a regular commercial,” Pytlik explains. “You have to cover every potential user experience, which means thinking about things like idle states and the continuity of how different sequences might fit together.”
A recent site for shoemaker Geox offers a good example of their approach. The brand wanted to show off its Amphibiox line of waterproof boots, so Stinkdigital solicited interest via Facebook for a “once in a lifetime adventure.” They selected four people from the respondents, each of whom was taken to the “wettest place on earth,” Cherrapunjee, India.¹ There, film crews followed them around as they undertook real-life tasks wearing Amphibiox boots.
But the most interesting feature of the site is not the films; it’s the interface, a long shot that lets you walk through the town’s market, giving you a great sense of a sodden, if exotic, place. When you approach one of the adventurers, they step into the shot, allowing you to click and see a film about what they did and how dry their feet stayed while in the area.
The site also demonstrates another of Stinkdigital’s guiding principles: the need to provide a satisfying experience on any platform. It comes in rich Flash on the desktop, offers a different experience at different screen sizes and scales down to YouTube on a mobile phone.
“With so many device and touchpoint combinations out there, the idea of the controlled ‘user journey’ is destroyed,” says executive producer Andy Kinsella. “It’s important to us, regardless of where you see our work, that you have a relevant experience.”
For a filmless Stinkdigital project, it’s probably best to look at a recent viral hit, Tweetfuel. There, the firm started by asking how effectively they were using social media. To measure their success, they came up with a physical tool: a hacked Nike+ FuelBand that spins whenever the firm’s name is tweeted or retweeted. It’s the kind of fun project that makes you think they have a lot of time on their hands, and you’re kind of glad they do.
At home, Stinkdigital keeps things intimate and unpretentious. They currently have three offices, one each in London, New York and Paris. A visit to the New York edition revealed a pleasant space: an open room encased in white and designed, contrary to common digital practice, to bring in as much natural light as possible. Like the rest of the firm’s offices, it is not large—intended for a group of perhaps 20–25—with enough extra room for hacking random hardware and making the occasional presentation.
Small size does matter to them too. As the firm moves forward, it plans on following the footsteps of the parent company and opening more companion offices around the globe. But, according to Pytlik, they’re not planning on fast expansion in any one city.
“There’s a finite amount of interesting work in any territory,” says Pytlik, “and then you have to do less interesting things to keep people busy. The model for us is to open more offices, keep them small and boutique, and continue to work on really high-caliber projects.” ca
¹For the record, the Guiness Book of World Records rates Cherrapunjee as the second wettest place on earth, with the nearby town of Mawsynram being first. Both regularly get over 450 inches of rain per year.