Sunday 2 April 2000

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After the slow take-up of her idea for a touch-screen kiosk, Georgia Hall saw the future in a faster and more flexible Net. The digital services agency she co-founded, Zinc, is now turning clients away.

Georgia Hall brought a new meaning to the concept of a family firm when she founded the digital services agency Zinc. She had only recently had a baby, but could see the e-revolution coming and was determined not to miss out.

When the hours became frenzied and she was at her computer screen until 4am, working towards pitch deadlines with her tiny team, her infant daughter occupied her own corner of the office - fast asleep. "We used to work all night and all eight of us would turn up at a meeting pretending we were an agency of 20 people. We wouldn't have slept for a week. It was hell. No wonder I love sleep now."

That was 1996; in the past five years Hall, now 37, and co-founder Ken Frakes have established Zinc as a leading one-stop digital shop, now overseeing 15 websites for Microsoft and providing marketing, programming and design services for clients such as Virgin Atlantic, Sony Music Europe and Vodafone.

With 60 staff, the agency's billing this year will be around £5m, but Zinc's main expansion may come through ZnSpace, a media planning division which the pair set up six months ago. They lured sales supremos Julia McNally and Caroline Walton from VNU, and Hall sees the division, with its remit to expand into areas such as media buying in digital television, as the "next big thing".

Her own route into new media was via agencies. She studied fashion before going into advertising, with campaigns for Grolsch beer and Max Factor. By 1989, she had moved to Tower Records as marketing director and began to plan in-store promotions with record labels. The shopfloor experience convinced her that customers needed a bigger piece of the action.

"The whole joy of music and sound isn't about looking at it on a poster. It's actually being able to experience and sample it. Nobody had heard of interactive kiosk systems, but we began to develop the idea with Ken Frakes, who at the time was doing our advertising campaigns."

The touch-screen kiosks Hall and Frakes came up with in 1993 enabled CD buyers to sample up to 30 tracks. The kiosks were also the first of their kind in the UK. "I invited all the record company reps to come in and try them - it went way further than a jukebox," recalls Hall.

She left Tower Records to join Frakes in installing kiosks in student union bars, backed by advertising revenue from giants such as Coca-Cola. But response was disappointing. "The future didn't feel rosy. I'd discovered at Tower Records that the CD took 10 years to reach 30 per cent of the market, and similarly it was becoming obvious that nobody was ready for kiosks. The Internet was moving a lot faster."

In April 1996 the agency Evans Hunter Scott invited the pair to come in and set up an interactive consultancy. Clients included Microsoft, but Zinc soon moved out into a six-floor house in the West End, and have since broken links with EHS. Back then, companies were only just waking up to the necessity of a good website. "We were very much educating clients, many of whom have moved into new media as opposed to having always been there. Some saw it as an add-on, but we've seen companies move from thinking about a glossy brochure online to thinking about one that works for the consumer."

It's frustrating, she says, that even now, in this age of the ubiquitous Internet millionaire, clients are reticent to commit time and money to new media. "People expect that there won't be as many deadlines, that there's less of a profile than for a TV campaign. I will say: 'Why do you come to that budget decision?' and they will say: 'We put this much above the line, this much below the line and what we had left, we stuck on the web."

One company that did invest heavily was Tesco, for which Zinc designed an award-winning site in 1998. "We always ask our clients: 'Why do you want a website?' There has to be a reason, not just a budget.

"Tesco's internal IT department designed their e-commerce site, which had spelling mistakes on the home page. We said: 'You wouldn't have spelling mistakes in the stores, so why online?'"

With new media, Hall argues, the proof is quite clearly in the pudding. For Virgin Atlantic, she reduced recruitment costs online to as little as £100 per head; offline advertising campaigns had taken costs to 10 times that figure. And now her priority is on refinement. "I spend most of my time turning new business away. If the company doesn't have a good brief and budget, I say no immediately."

Her other focus is ZnSpace. "Television is very much the common market; I am not even sure that the Internet is the way forward. My daughter visits the Barbie website and loves doing things through the TV; she doesn't care what the medium is, it's the media that interests her. Whether the PC or the television wins as a hardware application doesn't matter. What matters is the interactivity."

Zinc's own growth has been rapid and Hall aims to soon have 100 staff. These days she often works from home with her Sony Vaio computer, but says the family atmosphere of the firm is crucial. "I want us to be like Saatchi's in the 1980s: the big, sexy agency that's a lot of fun to work for.

"At the moment, I don't have the luxury of having four or five people in little think-teams. I am still doing everything myself, from PR to company culture to looking after the people who want a bus pass."