Alongside his business partner Jeff Sinclair, Ben West co-founded Intergalactic and Xomo, two companies that work with some of the world’s biggest brands, including SXSW, Telus, BMW, the Olympics and the Trump Organization.
Ben was selected as one of Business in Vancouver’s “40 Under 40” and holds a BA Honours in Media Studies from Queen’s University.
Today we’re chatting with Ben about his businesses, their role in the real estate development world and how digital and interactive media is changing the industry.
BuzzBuzzHome: Intergalactic is a digital agency, what exactly does that mean?
Ben West: We execute the digital portion of a marketing campaign or branding initiative. A client or marketing agency will come up with the logo, the brand and brochures, but they may not have the capacity to create the digital portion in-house — like a mobile app, for example. That’s where we come in.
BBH: Tell us about Intergalactic involvement in the real estate development industry.
BW: We didn’t set out to be a company specifically focused on real estate. We do different kinds of projects for a lot of companies around the world, but Vancouver is definitely a city where we’re most known for our work in the real estate industry. The business we do in Vancouver is all repeat business, or it comes from referrals. We have actually never made an outbound sales call.
The best part about that is all of our clients have grown with us and we’ve come to know them quite well. Our projects are executed with friends as opposed to clients because we’ve known them for so long and we really sit on the same side of the table as they do. We take a look at the goals of the project, what the budget is, and then come up with a plan together — it makes for a very pleasant and productive relationship.
BBH: Why do you think developers are reaching out to digital agencies like Intergalactic? Do you see a shift happening in the industry where builders are saying to themselves ‘we have to go beyond the common scale model at our sale centres’?
BW: Real estate is a competitive market and there’s a need to stand out. People so often find out about these projects online, so the digital presence of a developer’s project needs to be very strong. That doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have a million bells and whistles, but it does need to tell a story. In order to do that you need to use the right tools and you need to execute that digital strategy effectively.
What we’ve found with real estate projects is that the budgets have increased over time as both clients and consumers are expecting more in the way of digital access to the information. So across the board we’re building larger websites, larger interactive systems, videos, and more elaborate renderings.
We have some really great clients who allow us to exercise our creative ideas and push the boundaries, and every time we do that it sets a new bar in the local market for what people want. For example, the touchscreens you see out in sales centres right now, we’ve been doing those for about a decade. Then we started doing interactive displays and suddenly everyone needs to have that. So it’s fun for us, we get to work on a technical level, but also on a creative level and push the industry.
BBH: Do your developer clients give you a lot of freedom as far as how the digital campaigns are executed?
BW: It depends on the client. Some clients, particularly the ones that are newer to the market, are more risk-averse. It could be a first project for them, so not only are they going to watch their bottom line very carefully, but they also are hesitant to be experimental. The more established developers are willing to be more creative because they have the confidence of the market and they’re building landmark towers with iconic architecture. These clients want something special — something more befitting their project. So they let us be more playful, which shows in projects like the interactive model of Surrey at the Park Avenue presentation centre. It’s certainly fun for us when we get to go a little wild.
BBH: Are there certain things you always push your clients to include in a digital campaign in order to ensure its success?
BW: You obviously need to have all your bases covered. You need to have a great website and you need to have an interactive system of some sort. I’m still a big fan of physical models but you need to have interactive tools to go along with it. So, for example, if a customer wants to know what the views will look like from a certain floor, a sales associate should be able to pull that up immediately on some sort of device and show them.
BW: Concord is a big developer who thinks large and long-term. They tend not to build too many individual buildings, but rather whole communities with family and lifestyle amenities, parks and pathways, and public art. They go above and beyond what municipalities require of them because they know it will benefit their project if they create a neighbourhood that feels safe — somewhere that you can raise a family in. And they’ve done this time and time again across the country.
So when it came time to work on the Park Avenue campaign, Concord really wanted to speak about not just the buildings that they’re building now, but what the entire community would look like in 10 to 20 years. We considered a number of ways of how we could help people visualize that — because it really is an ambitious plan, and historically people’s perception of King George is an area that has faced tough challenges. But it’s going to become another major metropolis in British Columbia. So we ask ourselves, ‘how do you demonstrate that beyond just words?’ By physically building out hundreds of plexiglass models of current and future buildings, we allow people to interact with the vision, which gets them really excited and helps them understand the scope of what’s going to be there. It also helps them feel that when they buy there they’re buying into something great that has investment potential and is a great place to raise a family.
BBH: Intergalactic is working on the marketing campaign for the Trump International Hotel & Tower Vancouver, how’s that been going?
BW: We’ve already launched the teaser site, and while we can’t get into specifics on aspects of the project that haven’t been released, I can say that since it is a Trump project you can expect they’ll be some pretty big fancy things surrounding the digital campaign.
BBH: Have you worked with any of the Trumps directly?
BW: We’ve done interview segments with Donald Trump Sr., Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. They really are an exceptional brand. You see a lot of stuff on the news about celebrities, but until you meet with them you don’t understand what they’re like. The Trumps are a well-oiled machine — they know what they’re doing, they’re very professional and very savvy. I was very impressed with the level of polish and expertise and execution that they brought to the project. I think their brand is going to bring a lot of value to the project and I think that it really is going to be an iconic building in Vancouver.
BBH: Any other projects coming down the pipe you can tell us about?
BBH: Can you tell us about Intergalactic’s sister company Xomo?
BW: Xomo is a product company where Intergalactic is a service company. Xomo has a software product that allows us to roll out mobile applications for major events, from film and music festivals to conferences and sporting events. One of our major projects is the app we build for the SXSW festival and conference in Austin, Texas.
BBH: Is it true Xomo was responsible for the first official Olympic Games mobile app?
BW: Yes, our first major project was building the app for the Vancouver Olympics. We also did the official app for the London 2012 Games, which was a massive project as there were over 40,000 events. As part of that app we built a torch tracker that allowed users to follow the Olympic flame with a beacon we had on the chase car. Then once the Games started, that app transformed to become the cultural and sporting event guide. You could see, for example, when the 100 metre was on or you could find out what cultural events were taking place near you if you happened to be in the country.
BBH: When you build apps for major events do you get to attend any of them?
BW: You bet. We do several hundred events now, mostly in the United State and Europe, so we can’t go to all of them. However, we do go to SXSW every year and take 15 to 20 members of our staff. My business partner and I also got to walk the red carpet at Cannes Film Festival a few years ago, which was an amazing experience and one we had no business being a part of. Everyone was gorgeous, dressed in their ball gowns and tuxedos, and then you had a couple of pasty nerds from Vancouver walking in front of the paparazzi.
BBH: It can’t be easy co-running two companies that work with global brands in high-pressure industries. Why do you do it?
BW: We do it because we love it and our clients respond to that. They don’t get a sense we’re trying to sell something to them. We’re here to create really great digital products that support a brand. We’re not trying to create technology for technology’s sake, we want to provide the right benefit for the job. One of our biggest upsides is the amount of expertise we have in-house. Our clients can call just one number, whether they need a website, an app, touchscreen or video production. And on the rare occasions when we can’t handle a project in-house, we have enough expertise to help our clients find an appropriate vendor or solution that will work for them. There’s so much to know in the world of technology and it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by it. We want our clients to spend their dollars wisely and for the product to come across strong and for everyone to have a good time. So for us, it’s a great space to be in.
Thanks for buzzing with us, Ben!