Portrait of the Artist as a Young Digerati
The media has been rumbling for years about the rise of the digital creative agencies in DUMBO, the gem of urban renewal in Brooklyn nestled literally Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. Led by agencies like Huge and Big Spaceship, DUMBO-based firms are winning mission-critical digital business with both Fortune 100 clients and dotcoms. Talent-hungry boutiques continue piling into this post-industrial eyesore turned quaint design utopia, and a recent job fair-slash-cocktail hour attracted hundreds of eager applicants. The DUMBO allure seems increasingly less about discounted rent than participating in a unique culture of innovation and creativity that's drawing big clients and top talent.
"We definitely consider ourselves a Brooklyn agency," said Ivan Askwith, director of strategy at Big Spaceship, in a recent interview from his DUMBO office. "And that has strong implications on our culture and structure. We aren't sure if we're the way we are because we're a Brooklyn agency, or if we're a Brooklyn agency because of the way we are."
The way to which Askwith refers is Big Spaceship's workplace culture and its impact on the agency's output, which includes award-winning work for HBO, GE and Sony. That culture surpasses the Brooklyn clichés (spot-on though they may be) about super-smart, creatively-minded employees bicycling to work; dog-friendly loft-like offices; casual attire; foosball and ping-pong tables in the office; Wii on a big screen projector, the boasting of flat-structured organizational charts. All these characteristics do exist, though not to create a party vibe. They're essentially quality-of-life blocks used to build an environment that fosters creativity.
Huge and Big Spaceship occupy separate floors of the same building at 45 Main Street. They also seem to share an enlightened approach to running a business - what you might call an anarchist's model of creative capitalism. As one graduating student from Boulder Digital Works told me, "From out here, they're perceived as innovative creativity labs with big clients. I'm flying out next week and knocking on doors."
It's tempting to say their workplace cultures are DUMBO-enabled, as they both came of age during the area's impressive cultural renaissance. Digital Dumbo culture is less bohemia-evolved than it is Manhattan-spurned. DUMBO is one of the few remaining places in New York with a distinct, "I'm somewhere unique" vibe. You'll still see industrial-age cobbled streets and abandoned waterfront warehouses, but also find chic galleries, luxury buildings and high-brow consumption outlets by way of designer furniture and gastronomy. All of this gets regularly interrupted by the deafening roar of a subway rumbling over the Manhattan Bridge. There is a palpable coexistence of commerce and genuine artistry that's a far cry from the bohemian days of squatters, without resembling a SoHoesque shopping mall.
Culture is an important word, one often taken for granted. In David Quinn's jarring novel about Western civilization, Ishmael, the simian teacher points out to his pupil that culture is merely a group of people living out a story. Quinn points out that humans are living a very unsustainable myth, one that's been shamefully told by Madison Avenue since day one. What story is being told by Dumbo's stalwart residents - to themselves, to their clients and to the world of consumers? Is it merely the same toxic story aped by Madison Avenue for 100 earth-devouring years - the one that's brought humanity to its knees promoting conspicuous consumption, unlimited growth and war - just told in a separate language, a new font, a new tenor? Or is there something else happening in the minds of these new leaders of the information economy,many of the same exuberant minds that took to the streets two years ago to welcome Change?
If there is to be any progressive evolution in the mythology of our product-pushing culture, one might want to look at the authors of the story and the designers of the new medium. Fearing the worst, I went to have some beers with them in their idyllic digital district. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and when I left the final interview, I felt a way I haven't felt about consumer culture in a while: a little optimistic.
Huge had literally gone through the roof since my first visit more than a year ago, expanding into the floor above. Two rows of neatly parked bicycles sat adjacent a wide-open lobby with a leather chairs. The employees were all notably young. A lady walked up the stairwell wearing pink striped tube socks. There was a UX demonstration taking place in a glass enclosure with a client. On the facility tour, we passed a couple of employees playing at FIFA on a projector, each drinking beer on two central sofas. We entered an open kitchen with a massive counter. When offered a beverage, I took a Magic Hat. For a company with clients like Pepsi, IKEA and CNN, this was an impressive scene, one that didn't seem possible at a New York agency.
Huge's executive creative director, Joe Stewart, and Martin Olson, its technology director, both live in Brooklyn, look about 30 and dress in T-shirts and jeans like it's a Saturday afternoon and they are about to go record shopping. Stewart is thin, has a few tattoos. On the way to a restaurant and bar called Superfine, Stewart stops to momentarily admire a Triumph motorcycle parked on the cobblestone street. "Doesn't that seem like a perfect idea?" he asks no one in particular.
As we passed under the Manhattan Bridge, Stewart asked what I wanted to discuss. The Brooklyn agencies seem to embrace this approach even in interviews - to not fire off a bunch of rhetoric, but to wade into the water and brainstorm. Of course, to be fair, I was looking for some common traits among the people who had chosen to work in DUMBO, something that said they were drinking the same Kool-Aid. The equivalent of 20 midtown suits rifling Bud bottles at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday in a line at Annie Moore's. Or the Williamsburg version, where a lousy haircut, ironic T-shirt and foul mood are tools of assimilation. What emerged in DUMBO was less about style and more about a puritanical devotion to design and technology as a useful medium to improve lives.
"Advertising seeks to trick people into something. Tricking you into paying for shit you don't need is something, but it's not our thing," says Stewart, "At our core, we are a design company." Then he veered into sounding like a wired William Morris - the designer, artist and writer whose work inspired the Art Nouveau movement of the early 20th century. "Technology, through product design, can change people's lives for the better. Clients are figuring this out. Think about the first time you got your hands on an iPod. You knew how to use it, and you liked using it. And it changed the way we listened to music. And Gmail, it changed the way I communicate for the better. That is fucking incredible!"
Michael Lebowitz, the CEO of Big Spaceship, had echoed this sentiment earlier. "We build things that can help people. The past business models focused largely on products: 'What's our message and how do we communicate that?' But now we're all in a transitional phase toward information and creativity. At the inflection point of this transition is the opportunity to innovate."
Lebowitz can't pinpoint how being a "Brooklyn" agency factors into the model, but he knows it does. "You can't say exactly. But let's say you live in Brooklyn, and you volunteer at a food co-op and shop at Marlow & Sons," he says, referring to a pristine grocery and butcher. "That mentality spills over into your work. You're not going to work on pushing some sugary product." But he points out a greater zeitgeist: "Consumers are changing their tastes, and so businesses can't just shove products into the market. They really have to listen."
The biggest difference has deeper roots. "Traditional agencies end up aligning themselves with the culture of their clients. That means to structure your business around efficiency. For us, creativity doesn't thrive under efficiency," Lebowitz said.
Indeed, a corporate efficiency cop might issue a few summonses in DUMBO. At Big Spaceship on Friday afternoon at 2 p.m., client operations shut down and employees pursue private projects. It's similar to Google's 80/20 rule, which encourages employees to work on their own ideas. "We make things," said Lebowitz. "It's fun, and it gives us a chance to showcase creative ideas to traditional clients." Their office has a green room where one development team is working on a claymation video project. They've launched useful apps, such as Qapture, a Twitter aggregator, or the less utilitarian, more addictive Most Awesomest Thing Ever Web site, now in its second iteration.
Harvard Business School profiled Big Spaceship in an attempt to deconstruct what one doubts Lebowitz ever mapped out. The report, "Ready to Go Big," fixates on growth, but Lebowitz isn't motivated by growth. "The quality of the work and the opportunity to innovate is so much more interesting to me than the opportunity to, you know, land Procter & Gamble and do every bit of digital work for them. That sounds like a nightmare to me."
Its relatively small size affords Big Spaceship the luxury of scruples. "In 10 years, I've certainly faced the moral quandaries and turned down work. Still, I have an immediate responsibility to my local community," he gestures at the staff, "and I do have a global consciousness, but it's all very abstract and far off. So, do I take the work and satisfy the local community, pay my people, and try to steer it as best I can for the global? Or do I sacrifice the local? The answer is, we've done both. I've walked through this office and personally asked every person out there what they thought before taking on any risky business."
Back at Huge, Stewart and Olson discussed the perks of working at their agency. "It's not for the money. We're giving people the best projects in the world and treating them like humans. Look at the CNN project: Two guys - interns three or four years ago - now they're lead designers for the biggest news Web site in the world."
Olson quoted a colleague who described Huge's process as akin to 100 screaming people running across the field, arms up, with something valuable to say. "We completely embrace chaos."
Likewise, Lebowitz's version of 100 screaming people: "We embrace a culture of serendipity and randomness. We don't do one thing, and at the points of inflection as to what we do, that's where we innovate."
After a few beers, Olson asked to be excused. "I have to go marry off some friends. I'm also an ordained minister."
Stewart and I walked five blocks to a job fair sponsored by Digital Dumbo, a coalition that holds monthly networking events at a different local venue each month. It's co-chaired by an employee of Carrot Creative, whose president, Mike Germano, has been a vocal advocate for DUMBO's digital identity. Germano was the youngest town councilman in Connecticut before he entered the private sector. He describes Carrot Creative as "Web mercenaries," and is fond of drawing contrasts between the structured culture of Madison Avenue and DUMBO's. He likes to say of DUMBO: "There are no suits down here."
Germano posits Carrot as the wild and crazy guy in DUMBO, with mock self-aggrandizing statements and a personal pic of him satirically strangling a colleague in lieu of a corporate headshot. Carrot has won digital business from MLB.com, Ford and Unilever.
Six DUMBO-based agencies had tables at the job fair, including Huge. Huge's Stewart had never been to a Digital DUMBO event (18 thus far), and he seemed a bit perplexed by Huge's presence. When asked about Huge's hiring and training philosophy, and how they attract top talent without paying Madison Avenue salaries, Stewart answered, "We hire the smartest people we can find, the ones we can trust, then we give them the hardest projects. From there, it's just the school of Huge. There's no formula. A person might be really skilled, but I'm going to be living with them 60 hours a week. So I have to ask, do I want to have a beer with this person? If not, if we can't relate amiably on some human level, then, well fuck it."
Big Spaceship has been willing to recruit talent from outside the traditional advertising circuit, including people with library science and political backgrounds. Or, as Lebowitz says, "Our head of development used to be a rock star."
Enrollment in specialized digital media programs such as the Miami Ad School, Boulder Digital Works and Hyper Island has skyrocketed in the past five years. Stewart doesn't rule out hiring them, but still values real-world experience. As if to put a finer point on it, he added, "It's like Mike Tyson said, 'Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.' "
To understand what's going on in DUMBO, you have to first concede what's become of Manhattan. In his melancholy introduction to E.B.. White's famous essay, "Here is New York," Roger Angell offers grim insights on a New York City physically and culturally altered from White's sentimental vision of the '40s. Though still prescient in some ways, White's essay describes a New York whose current inhabitants we can merely suspect existed long ago, but has long since been crushed by the devastation of corporate consumerism, population growth, speed and filth. Angell suggests, "If White could visit New York once again, I think he would want to rush back home to Maine the same afternoon ... Fifth Avenue, Trumped; Broadway, Disneyfied."
New York City's squandered authenticity, its high cost of living and the perception, real or imagined, of corporate America's deadening effects on creativity - this is what emboldens a Brooklyn to become so hot. It's almost antithetical to New York, without being elitist and highbrow, without being anti-corporate and curmudgeonly. There is a rebellion against the status quo, against efficiency, against hierarchy, against glamour for perfection's sake, all on behalf of authenticity and human values. There is a high premium on the words authenticity and utility in DUMBO, less so on pretty (though don't discount it). It's a piecemeal cultural shift that values technologically enabled utility over mass consumption.
David Skokna, one of the founders of Huge, who in October announced he was leaving the agency, had this to say: "While our employees are disloyal to corporations, to their hierarchical mentality, they are not anti-capitalist. The system won, and we help the system. The question becomes how."