Garrick Webster finds out how technology, attention to detail and long winters have put North Kingdom ahead of the game.
The fourth of July is Independence Day. Everyone knows that. However in North Kingdom they have their own charter, their own rules and their own sense of history. For them, Independence Day is 5 June, and this year they celebrated the fifth anniversary of the agency's founding.
There's plenty for them to be celebrating too. With a company logo resembling a coat of arms and a cabinet full of trophies and design awards from around the world, it seems they'll soon be proclaimed the kings and queens of innovative web design. In fact they already have been, if their site's tag line 'Designer's First Monarchy' is anything to go by. Last month in London the team collected a D&AD Black Pencil alongside the agency Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. Then it was off across the Atlantic to Miami to pick up a Gold Clio for Animation and a Silver Clio for Brand Building.
These latest awards were for Get the Glass, a rich and engaging online game designed to promote milk, commissioned by the California Fluid Milk Processors Advisory Board. Sites in their portfolio such as Vodafone Future Vision have won Cannes CyberLions in the past, and North Kingdom won the Favourite Website Awards Site of the Year and People's Choice awards in 2008, making it into the FWA Hall of Fame.
Rather than the awards, however, North Kingdom's leading lights would rather concentrate on their hard work and attention to detail. "Winning awards isn't as important to us as it is to the bigger agencies in the bigger towns," says art director Robert Lindström, who founded the company alongside account director Roger Stighall back in 2003. "They're fun to get when you've been working really hard, and it's recognition for what you have done."
David Eriksson, CEO and creative director of the company, chips in: "We are actually keeping examples of our best work in the restroom. It's the only time you can sit down and have time to see them!" Lindström laughs, "Just don't let on to our clients!"
The pair are talking to us after recently launching three new sites: Coca-Cola Zero, Glass and a Half Full Productions and the rolling campaign for Toyota iQ. One thing that's striking about the company's work is how it pushes the quality of both video and interactivity to build more engaging user-experiences. If they have the same impact as Get the Glass, these websites will see millions of visitors, with the average time spent lasting close to 10 minutes. Any digital media strategist will confirm these are very good figures.
The Coke Zero site is a tongue-in-cheek game commissioned to promote Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the Euro 2008 football tournament in Austria and Switzerland this summer. The company wanted something aimed at the 18- to 29-year-old male demographic with a touch of rebellion to it. The site follows on from a Coke Zero spot that sells 'real taste as it should be' using geeks, girls, whipped cream, helicopters, explosions and zero sugar.
"The spot was inspired by Planet Terror and Death Proof - there's a very Grindhouse feeling in the design," explains Lindström. "We knew from the clients that they wanted action, girls and soccer. These three things are the main elements underlying the site, plus inspiration from the Grindhouse films."
To push the right buttons with the target audience, they knew they had to have a cool aesthetic and the right kind of gaming. On the games side, GTA and Max Payne were amongst the inspirations. Aside from the Tarantino-Rodriguez stylings of Grindhouse, Sin City and comic books were also reference points. Both Eriksson and Lindström are big Frank Miller fans.
Creating authentic games for the target audience was a major challenge. They decided upon simpler, classic-style gameplay experiences. "What we found with Get the Glass was that the games themselves needed to have a real game value. That's quite difficult on the internet. People are used to console games and PC games. We needed to stay away from that area - we didn't want to compete with console titles. We needed to make it an experience of its own," says Eriksson.
As the game unfolds, the main character from the television commercial must get to the football stadium by performing various extreme challenges laid before him by a mystery blonde and model-esque minions. It's all conveyed in stylish Flash video, punctuated by micro-games that include a car jump, blasting through a wall with a football, and keepy-uppy with a ball that's on fire.
The mouse-controlled gameplay pulls you through and the story unfolds. Little touches maintain the authentic feel; for instance, the artwork that opens each game is styled up like heroic computer game box art - a nice touch. However, the car game brought a challenge of its own. No recognisable logos or models could appear because Hyundai is another Euro 2008 sponsor. "We had to design new cars. When you have very little time and you've got to design everything down to a car, the challenge is to maintain the quality throughout your work," says Lindström.
Still, the site was built in six months and is now live. It's already won a bronze Clio for Brand Building this year.
Another huge client the company is now working for is Cadbury. The Gorilla ad sparked off a series of viral-style commercials for agency Fallon, and North Kingdom decided to create a site for Glass and a Half Full Productions, where additional activities for fans of the virals can be housed. Because each commercial is different, the site is less focused than Coke Zero, and will be added to when new TV ads go out.
"We just started thinking about what it would look like. For part of it, we thought it would be nice to be in the countryside, for example, to have a connection with the cows. Inside we had to represent each area. The Gorilla area should have a stage set, and the trucks area should have a trucks' set," says Jakob Nylund, art director in North Kingdom's Stockholm office, and a Flash and motion graphics expert.
It's another Flash site, with the 3D environment designed in 3ds Max. This was turned into a panoramic world that the visitor can explore using the Flash add-on Papervision. The site also pulls in a touch of Web 2.0 thinking, as the Gorilla studio features some of the best remixes of the original ad via links to YouTube. In the trucks area, there's the opportunity to design your own wacky industrial truck - if you win, Cadbury will have your truck built for you. Finally, explore the studio and find the secret word, and you can go down to the vault and mix a Gorilla ad using new footage.
The Toyota iQ site is another of Nylund's babies. Toyota wanted to promote a product it hadn't unveiled yet at the beginning of production. It wanted something that would keep people coming back over a period of time, with more information being revealed about the car each month or so, recreating the principles of a teaser trailer. The site also needed to convey the brand values of the vehicle - something intelligent, incorporating six new inventions relating to the environment, space and agility.
"We played around with the idea, and created the storyline about three characters who have three different problems. They go into this dreamworld where they try to solve the problems through different games. There's one game about the environment, one game about space and one game about urban mobility," says Nylund.
The car was unveiled in March and although all the puzzles have been implemented on the website, publicity for the iQ is going to be ramped up. As we go to press, North Kingdom is due to do a refurbishment on the site to reveal more about the vehicle.
With five years under their belts now, the North Kingdom team will be taking July off. They do this annually, preferring to get their work done in the long, dark winters of northern Sweden so they can enjoy the endless summer days when they eventually arrive. With 24 members of staff, they're also working on a round of recruitment. It's not just Flash developers they're after - one of Eriksson's priorities is finding talented people from cross-media environments with designers, copywriters, information architects, animators and programmers all encouraged to apply.
"It's very interesting to see new talent from the schools. New, fresh ideas." adds Lindström "We've never had a plan to find graduates but that's something we'll start to look at now."
"We're not planning to take over the world," continues Eriksson. "For us, working at North Kingdom is the chance to constantly develop as an individual; to get the opportunity to be curious about what's happening in the world around you, with technology, with creative ideas, with innovation. I imagine that we'll never be more than 40 people. It's difficult to be specialised if you're more than that."