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Behind the scenes with Soap Creative

Web Designer takes time to get playful with Soap Creative. An agency who place the user experience at the heart of their diverse output. They reveal their work with international brands, as well as developing their own bespoke projects.

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The original office in Sydney, Australia was co-founded by Ash Ringrose and Rob Dennis in 2002. Their first US studio opened a few years later with a renewed focus on defining play in a broader context, continuing to work across leading brands and entertainment properties. Most recently, Soap expanded to launch a studio in Dallas focused on bringing play into consumer mobility.

Ash named the agency, as Matt Griswold, managing partner at Soap Creative explained: “Ash Ringrose came up with the name in what now seems like an act of random genius. The real beauty of the name is that it’s clean – and that’s not just a pun. It didn’t have any real meaning or preconception, so it was ours to own and define. We get to add meaning to the name through our work over time, and that meaning has grown as organically as the agency.”

As Soap is now more than a decade old, it has a great deal of perspective on how the agency has evolved in that time, and how digital marketing itself has changed. Matt explained how, throughout the agency’s life, play and the desire to create groundbreaking work has helped guide Soap: “We have always been very open and flexible, which has let the business evolve organically. I think the flexible approach we take comes from our background in gaming and prototyping. The open and ever-curious culture has guided us to many new opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise targeted.

“The real beauty of the name is that it’s clean – and that’s not just a pun. It didn’t have any real meaning or preconception, so it was ours to own and define”

“We are looking for great opportunities where we can do great and interesting work that pushes the web forward. We are happy to do that with a number of different clients, but we don’t have a rigid business plan that says we will be at point ‘X’ in five years’ time. We certainly have a vision for what the agency stands for, and we use this day to day to guide us when we are choosing partners to work with, and people we bring onto the team.”

The agency’s website has also evolved with Soap. “We tend to place our focus on our work with clients, so the agency’s site serves a limited and singular purpose: to give a quick view into the ethos of the company and our work. Nothing more,” said Matt. “We want visitors – be it potential clients or new ‘Soaperheroes’ – to discover our personality through our work and decide for themselves if Soap seems like a fit for further conversation. We are candid, playful, and obsessed with our craft, so on that front I think our most recent site does a pretty good job of conveying
the spirit of the agency.”

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Gaining work for Soap has certainly not been too much of a problem; Matt explained how Soap has developed long-standing relationships with its clients, but is also sought out for its unique take on problem solving. “We are blessed to have many great opportunities (and people) seek us out. I believe this is a natural consequence of always staying focused simply on making awesome work for amazing clients. We do pitch on work, particularly to push ourselves into new industries and types of challenges, we’re always interested in new opportunities. In either event, we’re able to pick jobs that are a good fit for the culture and where we believe we can add disproportionate value to the mission. When we decide to pitch or pursue a project on those criteria, we’re all in. The way I see it we spend every day building our reputation through action, and the result of that choice is often loyal clients and more great opportunities.”

But how does Soap evaluate potential new clients? “It can be a challenge to evaluate new client opportunities,” Matt continued. “We do this in a couple of ways: We look first at the work that is on offer: Is it something we can get excited about? Can we do our best work under the parameters? Is it a large challenge? And is there enough trust on the client’s side? These are important questions for us to answer before we move forward with a new client.

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“We look for challenges where we can be the best in the world given our perspective and skills. I want to look across the table at the client and know we can do something unique for them. And when we win new business from that premise, the work we do is more interesting and innovative. I think agencies are collections of artists that iterate within the culture of their companies and it’s important that these people work on creative accounts, as this will drive the web and the user experience forward. We want to continually push the medium – and our clients – to evolve. That’s our role in the agency ecosystem.

“At the end of the day, quality is the business model. We form lasting partnerships with our clients by consistently delivering great work. You never know where that relationship may begin – many have started from small, one-time projects. We’re not predisposed for or against any particular type of client either… I wasn’t always of that mind, but great clients have reshaped my perspective in recent years. Yes, we get to play with some amazing IP; but I think everything we touch has a certain fun to be found.

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“We do have flexibility in deciding what we decide to jump into and we’ve consciously decided to focus on quality over scale. We don’t focus on the size of the opportunity as much as the fit. Can we bring a significant advantage over what another agency could do? Are we leveraging our unique strengths?
Is there freedom in the brief? Is this something that excites and challenges us to be better, as well as make the client’s business better? It’s not that we ‘get’ to choose our projects; I believe we ‘have’ to in order to focus and make sure we deliver our best for every client we take on.”

Soap Creative prides itself on developing unique user experiences that use play as the central foundation for all of their work. But is there a particular project that sums up the ethos that Soap lives by? Matt outlined why their Pac-Man initiative speaks volumes about who Soap are: “I think ‘The World’s Biggest Pac-Man’ is a shining example of play at work and captures the ethos of the agency well. For one thing, it obviously comes from the power of play that shapes everything that we do. It invites people in. It expects the audience to participate. We really love making things that are meant to be experienced, not just looked at. Second, it’s built on an understanding of community, empowering the entire user base to share in the creativity. I think that speaks to our collective spirit well. Finally, it’s a great example of partnership and initiative. We instigated the opportunity because the idea was too good not to be born, and we’re thankful that Microsoft and Namco Bandai were so awesome and trusting to support it from the outset.

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“The project was very much home grown, as we approach the participants with the idea. The project really speaks to the ethos of Soap, as we are a self-starter agency that will develop new projects when we see an opportunity. At the time, this was one of most ambitious HTML5 experiments around; Pac-Man pushed us to embrace HTML5 much faster and required us to put both arms around it to make sure we delivered an experience worthy of the millions of Pac-Man fans around the world.”
Each creative agency tends to have its own approach to working practices. Matt outlined their approach: “A typical project timeline for us ranges three to five months. There are several notable outliers on either side, of course, such as The World’s Biggest Pac-Man (two months) or Splinter Cell Blacklist (ten months). We move quickly and put a lot of emphasis on iteration, which means it’s better to keep teams small, 100 per cent dedicated to the project throughout and as close together as possible. We shuffle the studio around every six weeks as projects change to bring people closer.

“Teams are composed of designers, developers, artists, game designers, animators, producers, and writers – whatever the project requires. Across three studios, we have considerable and diverse talents to draw in to get the best possible team – and everyone is tapped into the same culture, which makes it easier. We don’t have an isolated account team, so our producers are the key interface within the team and with our clients. This flat structure gives the team better access to the client’s insights and gives our clients more visibility into the process.

“The most time-consuming part of any project is really the polish. That is, everything that is not expected or documented but makes the experience better. It’s as essential as it is tough to predict, so we’ve come to build it into our process throughout.”

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As an agency that constantly pushes the envelope of what is possible with today’s tools, Soap uses HTML5 and Unity as primary tools. “We’ve spent a lot of time refining our tools and knowledge around HTML5. This year we are aiming to make more use of WebGL and recent JavaScript frameworks to focus on delivering more compelling game experiences to the web, as we believe this is an area that is under-developed,” said Matt. “We do think that we are still pushing up against what the browsers are capable of and which standards they are supporting. There is still too much ambiguity with the adoption of these standards, which hampers the speed of innovation in user experience – especially when planning across multiple devices.”

And how do these tools allow Soap to support the burgeoning use of mobile devices across their designs? “A lot of our work over the past year has been led from a mobile-first philosophy. We’re thinking first and foremost about the on the go, touch interaction before the 27-inch iMac experience. It has really improved our appreciation of context and design across all of our projects, whether they’re mobile or not.

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“In terms of our approach to design, whether it’s responsive or bespoke, we try not to get obsessed with a particular technology, because the right answer is based on the individual project needs. At the moment, we’re engaged both in a completely responsive approach that works across all screens, and another very bespoke experience, because that’s what each challenge really demanded.

“I think we’re at an interesting point in technology in that everything has gotten easier. Server-side services are abundant, APIs are battle-tested and cloud hosting makes scaling much easier and cheaper. That’s great, as it means more attention can be granted to the user experience: the ‘what’ and ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’. The latent energy that used to get absorbed building a foundation is now free to innovate. I think this is a primary catalyst to the way all industries are now celebrating user-centred design. It’s not as though everyone suddenly decided they too could be cool; the advance of tools and technology has freed energy for new pursuits, like play.”

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With so many people looking to get involved with web design and development, it seems to be getting increasingly more difficult for the agencies themselves when it comes to deciding exactly who to take on; Matt outlined what Soap is looking for when recruiting new team members: “One of the defining traits of the great team that calls Soap home is an insatiable curiosity – of people, of culture, of technology. We also look for tinkerers: people who want to play with technology in new ways and know how to fuse that with an understanding of the mission. It’s not enough to dream big – start building, stay curious and see what works! It’s also not enough to create something novel for the sake of it – our clients are asking us to solve real challenges, so the user and business outcomes need to be at the forefront of the solution.

“When we consider recruitment, we see all kinds. The collective talent of the industry is accelerating, and we’re starting to see skill sets that are less rigidly defined than they once were. Many graduates today are tinkerers at heart, which is what we are looking for. They may have a great creative portfolio, but they also have an understanding of the technology base and are comfortable doing some coding as well. They are designers that use development as a way to better express their ideas among the team, and help define early prototypes. They likely won’t code the final product, but it helps the dialogue among a team of such varied talents. Developers have always been multi-disciplinary by trade but now are much more intimately involved in the design of the user experience.
“We see a number of great portfolios but we now also see people that not only have great work to show us, but they can explain and express their thinking behind each piece of work. They can explain the design they created and the solution they chose to approach that with, which for us is a shift in what we saw only a few years ago. We look for the tinkerer mindset, which shows that they are experimenting with their craft.”

And as our minds turn towards the future, is there anything that Soap is concentrating on in particular? “The future will see us focusing on new ways to bring play into the world,” Matt concluded. “We’ve already grown that sense of play outside of the browser and into mobile experiences, and outside of discreet devices into experiential executions that populate the world. So, we’ve been moving from purely digital experiences into bringing play into physical space as well. We will be looking to continue on that bridge; but day in and day out, we will be focusing on making great work. Quality will continue to be our business model.”

http://www.soapcreative.com/au/

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