From its humble beginnings in Brooklyn’s Dumbo in 2000, when that part of New York City was a desolate, off-the-grid stomping ground of artists and artisans, to the 115-person agency that has been the focus of two Harvard Business Review case studies and was knighted digital partner by JetBlue in June, Big Spaceship is still doing what it does best: paving new paths for how creative agencies define themselves, what they do, and how they work.
Calling itself a “modern partner to ambitious brands,” the agency has dropped the word digital from its list of attributes in a move aimed at putting the limiting and, in its opinion, now obsolete definition of digital agency behind it. (If the whole world is digitized, the thinking goes, why would you call yourself digital anymore?)
Big Spaceship, whose name seems more relevant than ever, is focused on what it can do for brands – and how culture and behavior affect their ability to do this – rather than which vertical they inhabit. In this vein, they divide their services into the three unique offerings: systems, stories, and communities. Big Spaceship is clearly doing something right. In addition to landing JetBlue, the 17-year-old company recently became Hasbro Games’ agency of record (note: not just “digital” agency of record), redesigned the Boston Ballet’s digital identity, created an app for BMW drivers that connects them with company engineers, and made a three-part film series in White Sands National Monument to showcase the photographic prowess of Samsung’s new phone.
99U Contributing Editor Dave Benton sat down with founder and CEO Michael Lebowitz, the man most responsible for Big Spaceship’s flight patterns, to find out how the agency manages to win clients David vs. Goliath–style from competitors many times its size, why the company’s culture is such a fundamental driver of its success, and how the company’s ethos plays out in everyday working life.
How have you seen Dumbo change over the course of 17 years?
In the first four or five months, we were in a 100-square-foot bedroom in my partner’s apartment in Brooklyn. Very soon after that we found our first office space and it was wildly cheap. Early on there were tumbleweeds blowing by! Our first building was pretty rough and tumble, and now there are extremely fancy and expensive condos nearby. There was a period of time where there weren’t even any services in the area and we had to walk up into Brooklyn Heights to get anything to eat. There was a great artistic community here – furniture makers and artisans and the like – and there was a vibrance to it even though it was quiet.
Eventually we got an actual market, which was a big step, and now that it has turned into a digital agency hub; part of me loves it and part of me regrets ever saying anything about Dumbo. It’s always a double-edged sword. Dumbo is such a neighborhood unto itself; you experience it the same way you would with the gentrification of a residential neighborhood. We’ve maintained a certain internal culture and are just as we used to be. The main difference is that our friends and clients are happy to spend time with us here.
How did you come to design?
It goes far back, in a strange way, to the Macintosh 512 I had when I was a young kid. I got one early on at my house, and there was no turning back from there. It was black and white and had a tiny screen, but it was incredible. We then got an early modem and had CompuServe, and I figured out how to do file downloads for the software to create my own bulletin board. I was probably 12 years old, and people would sign on and we would chat and trade files, so I guess I was into the internet before the internet, in a weird way. This was around 1984 or 1985. Design-wise, I was using Mac Paint and would create covers for my schoolwork, but I was never a good designer. I might have actually been the world’s worst designer.
My first real commercial work wasn’t until 1996. I had a friend who worked at a record label, and he introduced me to an internship out of a small web design company in Massachusetts. I swallowed my pride and moved back in with my mom in order to take it. Three of the guys who owned and worked at the studio lived in the house, and I would turn up in the morning all enthusiastic, and they’d wander down in their bathrobes with cigarettes and coffee! Their niche was music, so I worked on the Aerosmith website and a few other things, and that’s where I really began to cut my teeth and taught myself Flash. After a while of doing that, I moved back to New York and got my first full-time gig out of the print division at the back of the Village Voice.
It was incredibly quaint to get a digital job at a printed newspaper. It was the Wild West in web design at that time. There were barely any books, and when I started out you would see something online and just try to reverse engineer it. There was this great sharing community, but there really weren’t any classes or curriculum. You could be a designer just by having enough jobs and Photoshop to do it.
Thanks to the Harvard Business Review’s write-up on Big Spaceship, you’ve had a lasting effect on how digital agencies have structured their teams. How is your structure special, and how does it help your team?
There was a moment in 2007 when we were still seated in the office by discipline. I heard somebody say, “That’s not us; that’s the producers.” It horrified me! I felt like we were a band of misfits that all worked together, so the very next day I reseated everyone by the project they were working on so everyone sat cross-functionally, oriented toward the goal of the work rather than the skill sets that they aligned with. We never looked back.
At that time, all of our projects were of a very similar size and shape. We had fixed teams with a fixed number of people of different disciplines and they had names and numbers – that’s what Harvard wrote the case study about, and whether that structure would allow us to grow and scale. We can scale it, but when you are dealing with many different accounts and sizes of projects, as digital matured more and became the center of things, that’s when things got more interesting. We needed to make our organization more elastic and make sure we could slide people where we needed. But keeping the cross-functional accountability for great work always stayed the same.
The downside of cross-functional teams is that you don’t have all the designers sitting together and learning from each other. It is important that you develop every channel for communication that you can. We have Slack channels for each discipline. We focus on creating the connectivity that you don’t have from sitting together. We became much more efficient with this structure, and the team system was driven to make it like there were several small agencies within a small agency. One of the most important parts of this is that problems within teams surface far more quickly, so they can be resolved sooner. It keeps everything more transparent.
What does it take to create a great organization for the future?
The one thing you have real control over is values. It’s about your day-to-day job satisfaction. Our core values are to “take care of each other,” “collaborate inside and out,” “speak up – no silent disagreement,” and “produce amazing work.” It sounds pretty simple, although it took a lot of tweaking over time to get it down to that. I’ve recently been thinking of adding one around inclusivity and the value of diversity of perspective. One of the reasons we say “speak up” is that I have a lot of experience in what we do, but I don’t have the perspective of someone who has a 23-year-old’s interface with the culture right now, and neither of those is more valuable than the other.
An intern’s view is as valuable as mine, just in a completely different way. And I’m talking about the broadest sense of diversity, where it’s about bringing your whole self to work. I don’t want someone to just be a role; I want them to be a person. How can we embrace that as fully as possible and bring in every new facet we can bring in?
How are you adapting your agency to the post–“digital agency” world?
We should be thinking about people, and that people are at the center of it. Everything is being transformed by the biggest economic revolution of our lifetime, and it needs more nuance. Digital was enough of a differentiator for a while, as it could still be seen as separate from other things, but now it can’t. It could be used to optimize a company’s supply chain or for a social post. So digital is no longer a useful word. I understand that people are calling themselves digital agencies because that’s what clients are searching for, but I prefer to put our philosophy first and call ourselves a “modern partner,” as we were born into the digital world and understand it. The term digital agency means different things to everyone. We are in a position to be fortunate enough to say we are “a modern partner to ambitious brands.” We want to say something about our ambition because we are now in a position where we believe we can deliver on it.
How do you stay on top of what’s happening in the world around us, and when do you pull this knowledge in for your clients?
We hire curious people with a broad range of skill sets at the company now, and we always give people a voice. We tend to hire people who are good at connecting dots that might not otherwise be connected. My superpower is connecting the real superheroes. I also try hard not to dive too deeply into the industry trade publications, as I don’t think you find inspiration there. We will look at other agencies’ work to admire it, but I think it’s dangerous to get your inspiration from an echo chamber. If it’s being talked about in a publication, it’s probably a bit late anyway. Look at what the kids are doing: That’s being aware but not overcommitting. VR is an example; I tell my clients to be aware but the time is not right to go there yet.
How do you maintain perspective when you’ve done the same thing for so long?
Having lived in Dumbo for 17 years, I don’t think about it as one job. We have a slide we show on our agency credentials presentation plotting us in internet history. It’s essentially a timeline of logos. I love being able to say we are only a year younger than Wi-Fi being standardized, and only a year older than iTunes, the iPod, and Wikipedia. So it’s not one company when you predate so many things and have seen them all happen. We saw the iPod emerge and thought that would change everything. Then we saw the iPhone emerge and that did change everything. It’s a pretty soft transition, as you can’t watch yourself grow. It doesn’t feel the same: It feels like we are one set of values and ethos but we’ve been a dozen companies over that time.
You are one of the last original digital companies that has not been purchased. Why maintain independence?
I have been portrayed in the press as rabidly independent, and that’s not really true. I do get overtures almost weekly, but the problem historically was that I would have these conversations and think that they just didn’t get me and would try to assimilate our agency into their culture. If someone came to me and said they really got us and would want to structure us in a way that doesn’t change us but made us better, I’d be open to that. So I’m just incredibly picky. When I see something that’s amazing, that will be the next chapter. I love this place, and I have an obligation to all these people, as they came in for something really specific. You don’t do something that is going to change it negatively lightly. I consider myself personally responsible for the culture of the place. I need to make sure we are doing everything we can to tend the cultural garden.
Image courtesy of Michael Lebowitz