A new Grain sprouting in Web world

Feb 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

A new online advertising design firm is preparing to announce a deal with telecommunications carrier Sprint.
Showing that serendipity can be the mother of invention, newly launched Internet ad creator Grain stumbled by chance on the agreement to design a new Sprint online ad campaign. Sprint heard about Grain through the telecom giant’s relationship with Charlex, the television-ad design company from which Grain is being spun off.
For Charlex, Sprint is one company on a long list of Fortune 500 clients that includes Kodak, IBM and American Express. Designer Alex Weil, who founded Charlex in 1977, decided to embark on Grain, his latest project, after completing an artistic makeover of America Online’s Moviefone site. The experience awakened Mr. Weil to the Internet industry’s aesthetic needs. Mr. Weil believes that because the PC-based Internet developed primarily as a high-tech business tool rather than as an artistic forum, the online advertising market suffers from a dearth of creative talent.
“There’s so much opportunity for wide-open creativity on the Web,” Mr. Weil said. “Some people say the TV is different from the Web. They say it’s a `lean-in’ experience. I say that’s bullshit. I want to make it a `lean-back’ experience. There’s really a need for the kind of sensibility that a company such as ours can bring.”
In Grain’s newly drafted mission statement, the company says it is striving to produce online ads that “retain the spirit, texture and brand feel of film commercials and print advertising,” using sleight of hand to render their high-tech design tools “invisible to our clients.”
Although Grain is being established as a separate company, it will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of Charlex, its offline media counterpart, Mr. Weil said. Still, as is often the case with offspring, Grain is establishing its independence from its parent in small steps.
The two companies share office space-an arrangement that Mr. Weil says is only temporary. Mr. Weil is paying $12,000 a month in rent for Grain’s future home in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley neighborhood, just below 23rd Street on Fifth Avenue. Within the next year or two, Grain will inhabit the new space. But for now the property’s distance from Mr. Weil’s professional studio in Charlex’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan is a divide Mr. Weil isn’t prepared to traverse.
“I took a cab back and forth a few times and would have lost two hours of my day [during a commute between the two facilities],” Mr. Weil said.
Mr. Weil’s entrance into the online advertising arena comes at a time when the business is experiencing growing pains. Like most companies in the advertising industry, Charlex has seen the volume of Internet advertisers begin to ebb during the past year. Mr. Weil estimated that online ad campaigns, which accounted for about one-third of Charlex’s business in early 2000, now constitute only about a quarter of the company’s revenue stream.
Aside from Mr. Weil’s existing relationships with Sprint and AOL’s Moviefone, Mr. Weil says Grain is busy trying to line up design and production commitments from other big-name advertisers. Among the potential clients in talks with Grain is a major sports league. “I’m marketing myself directly to ad agencies and their clients,” Mr. Weil said.
The majority of Grain’s online ads will be streaming-only clips produced with Macromedia’s Flash animation tool. However, Mr. Weil is also considering creating banner ads with links to streaming presentations.
For Mr. Weil, the birth of Grain marks the culmination of a career-long fascination with the artistic appropriation of technologies. In 1983, he helped produce rock band The Cars’ seminal music video, “You Might Think,” which integrated separately filmed characters and backdrops into one image. Later, Mr. Weil would go on to work on Sun Microsystems’ famous “We put the dot in dot-com” advertising spots-a slogan Mr. Weil now appears to have taken to heart.