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Making the virtual real

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Even for those who live largely in virtual worlds, there are benefits from old-fashioned physical meetings, writes Ruth Slavid. Ken McGaffin met Paul Hyett, with whom he has co-authored these articles, on a flight from London to his native city, Belfast.

McGaffin, who runs a consultancy telling people who want to set up web sites how to do it, explained his work to Hyett and later took him to the Cybercafe in London 'and showed him what it was about - I was trying to sell him a website, of course'.

So far he has not succeeded, but the two have forged a friendship. Hyett, the Architects' Journal's weekly practice columnist, has contributed his understanding of how architects work and think to McGaffin's ability to explain what the internet is, why it is important and how it can be useful to people who consider it either irrelevant or frightening.

'I think the important thing is to be able to talk to people in their own straightforward language,' McGaffin says, and that is what this series of articles sets out to do. McGaffin can explain things clearly because, despite his skills, he is anything but a techno-nerd and before entering the virtual world had a wide-ranging experience of the actual one.

Now aged 43, he has a degree in psychology which he followed with ten years working in the public sector, mostly on job creation for young offenders. False modesty is not one of McGaffin's failings, and he was, he says, 'extremely successful'. Then he went to the us in 1989 to spend a year in Boston working as a marketing consultant and studying at Boston College. His subject? That most American-sounding of topics, entrepreneurship. 'Of course, I already was an entrepreneur,' says McGaffin.

One of the joys of this period was having access to the computers in the library where 'I had a tremendous time using the on-line resources, the forerunner of the internet'. When he got back to the uk, McGaffin set up his own marketing consultancy, moving more and more into advising on the internet. He describes himself as 'the epitome of a virtual corporation - I work in my clients' offices in London, Belfast, California and Switzerland'.

When not visiting, he works from his own home in London. As well as advising 'ordinary' customers onthe benefits of the internet, McGaffin's organisation 'helps web design and multi-media companies understand the needs of ordinary customers'. One of his biggest clients is the bbc. He also has a design studio which does web design. In phrases frightening to the novice he describes this as 'high-end web design and high-end programming'. In total he employs six people.

So how does his advice work? 'If you want to set up a web site,' he explains, 'you need to understand about the interaction you want to have with the customer - not the technology. My role is to talk to people in very simple language, to show how the internet can benefit their situation.'

McGaffin believes that 'something radical' happened in 1997 in the uk. 'The web took off in the uk, and is being taken very seriously.' For McGaffin, this means that his future is defined. 'I now have a very clear idea of what I want to do. I want to look at a marketing consultancy on the Internet, taking traditional skills and applying them to this new field.' And he has another ambition: 'I want to make some money.'

Ken McGaffin can be contacted at Connect Marketing, New Media Strategy and Research, 3 Castleview Close, London N4 2DJ, tel: 0181 802 2203, fax: 0181 809 3600, http://activemultimedia.co.uk

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