Webmedia's premises are like one of those Rag Week stunts where they attempt to squeeze a record number of sociology students into a phone box - how many account executives and HTML programmers can you pack into a poky London warehouse? Space is so tight that if your CD-ROM ejects unexpectedly, you risk being knocked out of the back window. Fortunately, moves are afoot to transfer the whole operation to much larger premises in Farringdon. That Webmedia has to do this just two years after it was founded speaks volumes about its success.
"I know it sounds laughable to say this when we're just 40 people in a hot room in the West End," says founder and Alfred Molina-lookalike, Steve Bowbrick, "but what we're doing here is sowing the seeds for what are going to be the dominant media groups of the third millennium."
Given the company's relative youth, isn't this rather like a size three egg boasting it's going to be an ostrich? Aren't the established media giants, people like Time Warner and Rupert Murdoch, likely to have some opinions on the matter? More worryingly, aren't they likely to snap up the hi-tech minnows and take ownership of the Internet themselves?
Bowbrick disagrees: "History has shown us that the champions of one wave of business are very rarely the champions of the next. Watching the scrabblings of the established media groups in the face of this new medium, the Internet, is fascinating.
"Take, as a good example, Janet Street-Porter's attack on the Net in Channel 4's J'accuse a few months back. Here's someone from the generation of people who are petrified by computers. Quite rightly, because they didn't have them when she went to school. That's why she and her contemporaries, the old guard, still talk about Internet users as anoraks and nerds. However, look at the US. There's none of that. There, the Internet has become a mainstream commercial medium. We're on the verge of the same thing in the UK now. When it happens, development will really take off."
Webmedia took off in October 1994 when Bowbrick, who had been teaching media studies at the University of East London, got together with Ivan Pope, publisher of a print magazine called 3W. "We were both convinced that even if the Web wasn't 'it', it was at least the prototype for it - a newly emerging medium." So the pair decided to set up a company which was dedicated to exploiting the full potential of this chimerical "it" as a marketing and information dissemination tool. But weren't other companies trying to do exactly the same thing?
"No. Back then, most Web pages were being put together by people in IT departments who, although they knew about coding, had little concept of design or how to write editorial copy. Either that, or the job was handed over to a design department which had little understanding of the mechanics of the Web. We at Webmedia, on the other hand, could sell ourselves as a company that knew the Web, knew design and knew copywriting. We can therefore create a well designed site that isn't just a static online brochure, but exploits the potential of the Internet and all its interactive functionality to the full."
In the first year, turnover was around #400,000. This year it should be nearer #3 million. Clients now include Time Out, Lloyds Bank, The Cheltenham & Gloucester, The Body Shop, RCA Records, Lufthansa and the BBC Design Awards. And Webmedia itself has become an umbrella organisation, Webmedia Group Ltd, comprising Webmedia Ltd, a "full service company" for producing commercial Web sites; Webcontent Ltd, an embryonic company which creates entertainment sites; Webservices Ltd, which, among other things, registers Web domains; and Webdevelopment Ltd, which, as its name suggests, creates new tools and methods for publishing Internet sites.
"What we're doing with the company as we approach our second anniversary is planning a relaunch of Webmedia Ltd, the creative and production house, using an agency model. In other words, Webmedia will comprise all the departments - accounts, management, creative, planning and research - that you see in an ad agency. This is partly in response to demands made of us by the clients, but at the same time it's a way of staying ahead of the crowd. Right from the beginning, we differentiated ourselves from the competition by regarding the Net as a medium and a place to do business rather than simply a core technology. That was a radical thing to say at the time but it's largely taken for granted now. We're on the threshold of incredible growth."
It's got some way to go, though. Currently, only about three per cent of the UK's 60 million population have access to the Internet and half of them only use it for email. However, Bowbrick is undaunted:
"Three per cent of 60 million is 1.8 million. I like that number. It's not too bad at all. Especially when you consider that, according to research, the average Internet user is relatively young, relatively well educated and relatively affluent. In other words, exactly the demographic that most advertisers are desperate to target (see Internet survey feature page 18). But of course, our challenge as an industry is to begin to grow that demographic.
"What's happening in the US is encouraging in this respect. There's now a relatively large number of quite affluent senior citizens - post-55 and retired - who have time on their hands, disposable income and, most importantly, the inclination to try new things. These people are a huge boom area for Internet access and online services in general. I'd like to think that where the US leads, the UK will follow."
Bowbrick believes the classic model of the way the Internet will evolve and grow is provided by television. In the US in the 1940s and 1950s, he explains, the people who actually made the programmes were the advertisers.
General Electric made quiz shows, while soap manufacturers such as Proctor & Gambol made dramas (hence the term soap opera). This was universal.
The advertisers used the broadcast spectrum as if it were their own.
"But the media owners - mostly newspaper barons - looked at this and said: 'This is setting a very poor precedent. We should reassert our ownership of this space.' So they did, and over a period of 10 to 15 years, the television companies became the property of the old media owners, who then took it as their privilege to parcel up time in their medium and sell it back to the advertisers as slots in between the programmes. That's how we got the commercial break.
"Today, though, television has come full circle. You've now got people like Heineken commissioning a programme called Hotel Babylon. There are other examples, too. Why is this happening? Because television's bandwidth - in other words, the number of channels it can offer - has increased dramatically. Those channels are crying out for content, which the established media owners, by themselves, can't hope to provide. Which explains why the advertisers are now providing programmes once more.
"The Web, by contrast, is at this stage already. There is no scarcity of 'channels' and there never has been. There can be any number of Web sites, resulting in an even greater vacuum effect than with television.
The Internet is therefore going to be sucking in content at a huge rate and a significant source of that content is going to have to be advertiser-supplied."
In other words, Bowbrick sees a situation where we will access Web sites along the lines of "Mossops' Plastic Widgets brings you the London Eating Out Guide", much as PowerGen now claims responsibility for the weather on ITV. Most people, of course, will simply use the site as a restaurant reference source. However, they'll have the option of clicking on the Mossops' logo to obtain information about the company and its products, and maybe even ordering a widget or two online. That's where the site really pays for itself. Mossops' main concern will be to dissuade the Net user from going to the "Franklins' Plastic Widgets brings you the London Eating Out Guide" instead. Which is where companies like Webmedia come in.
"There are several things we can do. The first, naturally, is to encourage clients to advertise their Web sites. How? they ask me. You're already buying space on television, in newspapers and on the sides of buses, I tell them. So put your URL in the TV ads and in the newspapers. Put it in your advertisement in the Yellow Pages.
"The second method is more down to us. What we'll do for a client is organise cross-links with comparable, related Web sites. We'll essentially run a media campaign for them on the Internet. Fortunately, our client base is very broad, encompassing media, finance, consumer and government bodies. It's therefore very easy for us to broker connections between our client Web sites. So if, say, Lloyds wants to reach the student demographic, we'll put a Web link to Lloyds in our comedy Web site. Or whatever's appropriate."
Clientwise, there are some major deals in the pipeline that Bowbrick can't, or rather won't, yet talk about. But you can tell by the smug look on his face that things are going his way. "In just the first three months of this year, we turned over half a million. We're right at this minute seeking investment to enable us to grow still further."
So how long before the company starts bursting out of its new Farringdon site, too?
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