Independent digital agency Level Studios, formerly known as Web Associates, has been in the game for almost a decade and a half. Oliver Lindberg finds out what makes them tick
.net: What does Level specialise in?
Tom Adamski: Level Studios is an independent digital agency that specialises in delivering consistent, memorable user experiences across desktop, web and mobile environments. We start by helping our clients turn disparate sources of enterprise data into structured content, and then deliver that content through campaigns that span most digital mediums. The collaboration of our strategy, creative and technology groups allows for this holistic approach, while making the agency relevant for a broad range of projects.
.net: Why did you decide to change your name from Web Associates to Level Studios?
TA: The agency has been built on the strength of our long-term relationships. As those relationships have matured, the range of services we’ve offered has expanded outside of just ‘web’. While our capabilities grew, we found it increasingly difficult to sell our strategy, online marketing or video services to new clients – or even new divisions of existing clients – with our previous name. We chose to make a change in early 2007, and with guidance from our staff and our core client base, the Level brand was born.
.net: You’ve been in the business for a very remarkable 14 years. How’s your work changed over the years? How much of your work is still pure web design?
TA: In 1995 we began with a heavy focus on hosting and managed services, so over the years we’ve really shifted toward a services-based model. The catalyst was when HP, our largest client at the time, decided to take all of its hosting internal during the economic turbulence of the .com burst. By late 2001, our core revenue source had been depleted and we needed a quick reinvention. We restructured the company, rewrote the business model around services and rebranded the company. Since 2002, web design has been our core output – but our strategy, online marketing, video production and application development services are all rapidly growing areas of Level.
Since most creative ideas are half-baked unless defendable, our designers are humble about their capabilities, yet confident in their approach.
.net: On your site you mention Level’s creative methodology. Can you explain it in a few sentences?
Alexander Mahernia: The right attitude ensures innovation. Since most creative ideas are half-baked unless defendable, our designers are humble about their capabilities, yet confident in their approach. Leveraging the idea, our creative team disrupts predictable strategies and provides differentiating solutions through a simple, yet effective ideation process.
.net: What’s the biggest challenge when dealing with huge global brands such as Apple, HP and RIM?
AM: The key challenge in working with global companies is adhering to their brand, design and implementation standards, considering that the solutions need to be applicable across various market segmentations and languages. Once we’re able to get past this hurdle, our next challenge is consensus building, as these organisations often have an army of stakeholders, creative directors and marketing managers. Long-term relationships allow us to innovate and push their brands (at times outside of their comfort zones) to provide new and differentiating user experiences for their consumers.
.net: What’s happening in the Level labs?
TA: Level Labs is about innovation 18 to 24 months ahead of market demand. We’ve quarantined a cross-functional group of strategists to help drive the agency in new directions, but in the context of what’s applicable for our client base. New approaches to old problems seem to be a recurring theme. The result has produced new approaches to SEO, content localisation, mobile application development and rich media production. Our clients benefit from each technology or process innovation in tangible ways, whether it’s cost reduction, time to market gains or campaign results.
.net: You’re putting a lot of emphasis on innovation but what do you do when the creative block hits you?
AM: Frankly – and luckily – the block hasn’t hit us yet. We have employed and retained a great number of designers from all over the world, with various experiences in a variety of design fields/industries, which brings a unique and sometimes wacky perspective to the table when we need out-of-the-ordinary thinking. We’re seated in social clusters where ideas float freely, and most importantly we leave our ego at the door, which really promotes a healthy, innovative and collaborative environment.
.net: What tools and techniques could Level not live without?
AM: Speaking for the creative team: Martinis and Photoshop, with a side of bacon-wrapped After Effects plug-ins in Maya chipotle mayo. A nutritious, yet productive afternoon of designer treats.
.net: Why did you decide to build your own content management system, Switch, and how popular has it been so far?
TA: Switch was born from our early Level Labs efforts. We set out to build a tool that increased our production efficiency while enabling two key features: better search engine optimisation of CMS-generated pages and the ability to publish the same block of content across digital mediums, including both static and dynamic file types. We’re now working on extensions for analytics, globalisation and product catalogue integrations. We’ve built custom CMS systems since 1998, so Switch was a natural extension of what we’d learned, coupled with what we felt was still missing in the market. Since its launch in July 2008, both upgrades and new installations have been tracking above expectations.
For the time being, we’re West Coast through and through. Expansion will occur in the future if it will help make us a better agency for our clients.
.net: You’ve got three offices in California. Have you ever thought of expanding outside California or the US?
TA: California is home ... and also the eighth largest economy in the world. The state spans a broad range of industries, and we’ve been fortunate enough to expand organically from our original technology stronghold in Silicon Valley to the consumer electronics, entertainment, consumer products and technology markets of Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Having three studios in California offers a unique lifestyle for Level employees, since they can choose Bay Area, Central Coast or LA County lifestyles while remaining with the same agency. For the time being, we’re West Coast through and through. Expansion will occur in the future if it will help make us a better agency for our clients.
.net: What are you looking forward to at SXSW this year?
AM: Aside from the music, events, and product showcases, we’re looking forward to the workshop sessions and connecting with the industry on a personal level. SXSW is a great networking event and an opportunity for a company like Level to share and compare some of the latest technologies, designs and ideas with the rest of the industry. Other than that, the ladies and the free beer!
.net: What’s the most bizarre request you ever got from a client?
AM: Well … that might be a better story for Playboy than .net magazine
.net: What projects have you got in the pipeline?
TA: We’ve got some projects right now with companies in the gaming, networking and consumer products industries that we really believe will redefine our agency and its market perception. The projects span the breadth of our services, from digital campaigns around product launches to CMS deployments and website redesigns. In this difficult economic time, it’s been encouraging to observe what our clients are requesting from us. It’s apparent that they aren’t seeing us as the same agency we were last year. Level has a broader relevance, and the work we’ll produce in the next six months will be a strong showcase for who we are now.
Agency location: San Luis Obispo (HQ), San Jose and Los Angeles, CA
Team: 125 employees and growing
Expertise: Digital agency specialising in user experience, digital media and application development across multiple platforms
Clients: Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Research In Motion, Adobe, Quiksilver, Namco Bandai Games, Cisco, Netflix