Recently, an enterprising junior editor at Firstborn finished a 15-minute short film he'd been working on for two years. The production wasn't for one of the New York digital agency's growing list of blue-chip clients - just for himself, a personal journey.
So, the 70-strong staff at Firstborn squeezed into the conference room for opening night. As JoonYong Park watched, he was filled with awe and pride. Not because of what was on the screen, but because of who was behind it - a young man Raplh Mastromonaco who invested nights and weekends for no money simply to pursue a passion. "I felt so humbled," Park says.
Also not long ago, one of Firstborn's Flash developers, Mike Roushey, joined with a sound designer, Brett Swanson, for no other reason than to flex their creativity, putting together an animated short that was set to the voiceover from a Batman film.
This time, there was a client benefit. Soon, the developer was helping visitors to the Aflac Web site determine their insurance needs - not the most exciting thing - in a far more entertaining manner.
Rest assured, these amateur auteurs aren't the only ones stretching themselves at Firstborn - on their own or on client projects. Park, the chief creative officer, has worked to foster an atmosphere that both encourages and attracts such motivated and proud individuals. "We try to have the most passionate people and while we're doing it, we want to have fun," Park says.
Self-motivation is one of five characteristics the agency looks for in its staff, which Park detailed in a June address at the prestigious Mad in Spain event celebrating creativity. A second is "goofy," where people are liberated to be "unique in their own way" and unencumbered to throw out wacky and crazy ideas in brainstorming.
Also there's "genuine" and "positive," both key in trying to inspire can-do attitudes for overcoming impractical clients and low budgets, even if it "may not be the coolest project." And of course, there's "prepared," keeping a skill set sharp so projects that need to be turned around yesterday can be wrapped quickly.
Throughout the speech in Madrid, Park's sense of admiration for the people of Firstborn - who come from 17 countries and embody the five principles - was apparent. So was his own humility and ingenuousness. "You have to have an ego, I think, to be great ... but he is [devoid] of any kind of prima donna factor and I think [that's] enormous and shapes our company in so many ways," says Firstborn founder and CEO Michael Ferdman.
Some combination of talent and leadership is working. The agency is creating breakthrough work for the likes of Aflac, Wrigley and SoBe, while ramping up video production and 3-D capabilities. It's also moving into new mediums such as out-of-home experiences, while its work for some clients has unexpectedly led to producing TV ads.
"Digital means so many things these days," Park says. "It's not just on my Web site anymore, it's an experience we're trying to create and we have to convince our client about everything we're capable of." Earlier this year, the agency was acquired by a branch of Japanese holding company Dentsu and now falls within a group that includes the surging Mcgarrybowen, fellow digital agency 360i, and branding specialist Attik.
Firstborn had been approached by suitors for years, but ceo Ferdman kept turning them away, fearing the agency would compromise its independence.
Ferdman, however, felt Dentsu would offer the right balance, where the agency could maintain its culture, but also have access to increased funding and other resources (such as the new offices). But, he was insistent that agency president Dan LaCivita and Park were onboard.
"Any trepidation, it would have been a no deal," Ferdman says. Global holding companies and TV spots are a long way from where the agency was when the 31-year-old Park came from Korea and joined as a designer in 2004. Back then, with a staff of 10, Firstborn was a sort of boutique that mainly did production work for agencies such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Goodby, Silverstein.
Park impressed Ferdman with his left-brain, right-brain duality. "He was an incredible designer and also a spectacular developer," Ferdman says. "It was hard to find somebody who could do both at such a high level."
Park returned to his native Korea for personal reasons, but kept freelancing for the agency. Then, Ferdman offered him the creative director position and he was on his way back.
"Honestly, I wasn't ready for that big title," the self-effacing CCO says.
He became chief creative officer at the same time LaCivita took over as president, as part of a plan to give the agency more leadership structure as business grew and more management layers (with titles) were needed. Notably, the agency was beginning to win business directly from clients.
In March, Firstborn created a quirky way to promote SoBe via experiential marketing at the South by Southwest event in Austin for a second straight year. A kiosk used Firstborn-developed facial recognition software that allowed visitors to transform themselves with whole new looks - Salvador Dali mustaches, spiked hair, funny hat styles, etc.
They could take a short video and save it to a share page, which could be accessed with a url or qr code and then blasted across social media. The stunt was tabbed "Try Your New Look," rooted in SoBe's message about trying all its flavors and picking a favorite.
In 2010, there was also considerable excitement around another expedition to the Titanic crash site. Firstborn created an online presence for the discovery, with a 3-D replica of the Titanic, plus videos profiling the scientists and oceanographers involved, and then a live feed supplemented by updates through social media.
Much of the content would have worked well on an imax screen. One thing is clear: Firstborn is doing anything but sinking and happy to swim in new waters.
"The digital landscape is changing so much, it's really hard to predict where it's going to head to," Park says. "At the end of the day, whether we stay in digital or don't, it doesn't matter. We want to create great work."