The Nike Air Max site is pure Big Spaceship. A runner streaks across a black background. Touch a key and an animation appears, a line of dots trailing in the dust. Hit another, and graffiti-inspired graphics swirl around the screen. The more keys you press, the more animations appear.
It’s not a story, a call to action or even a message. The interactive industry calls such sites “immersive experiences.” At best, they are impossible to define but ineffably cool. And Big Spaceship CEO Michael Lebowitz has a simple formula for creating them.
“We ask ourselves, ‘If this had to stand on its own, could it?’” he says. “As much as possible, we try to make things that can stand on their own.”
The 50-person, New York-based agency is far from the only player in this space; it is, however, one of the most successful. Today, it turns down work at a five-to-one ratio and doesn’t even have a sales or business development staff. It builds its own game engines and works on all the emerging digital platforms, from mobile devices to JumboTrons.
Its ascent to this level has been rapid. Seven years ago, the firm was founded in a split-level, shoe-box-sized loft. Its first client was Miramax, for which it produced three small, but well-received film sites.
Even then, the firm had a stubbornly independent streak. Where most new interactive agencies in New York soon traded in their apartments for Design Within Reach-bedecked offices in SoHo, the Spaceship instead decamped to dumbo, a warehouse neighborhood located quite literally under the Brooklyn Bridge. And unlike most in the industry, it hired almost no freelancers, preferring instead to develop a loyal, in-house team.
“We don’t do permalancing,” explains Lebowitz, “Everybody comes in, and we have great benefits. If you don’t give people the comfort level to settle in, you’re not building much of a foundation.”
The firm built a more family-friendly environment than most. Late nights, while inevitable, were discouraged. Steady work was preferred to all-out onslaughts on projects. The Spaceship did not recruit superstars, and its presentations at industry conferences were more likely to feature nerdy Flash techniques than revolutionary design manifestos.
The formula worked. Despite its distance from Hollywood, Big Spaceship began making its mark on the industry. Its sites featured multiplayer games and clever applications that soon became must-haves for major film releases. By 2005, the firm was so dominant in the industry that it won Web site contracts for nearly every large tent-pole campaign of summer 2005.
It was a heady moment, but it was also too much. Though movie Web sites allow for plenty of experimentation, they are notorious for can’t-miss deadlines, low budgets and last-minute changes. Big Spaceship began looking to broaden its portfolio.
Luckily, at the same time, the online marketing industry was warming to experiential work. Companies began looking for ways to draw in young consumers, more likely to be on the Internet or using mobile phones. In 2004, the Spaceship produced a site for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and followed it up with a site for Sony’s Walkman division and a long-term partnership with the Food Network.
“It’s been a gradual shift,” says Lebowitz. “We didn’t fire anybody, we were never fired, but we were less likely to engage in certain things...We wanted to balance the really long lead stuff with other opportunities.”
Today, the firm still has a few movie-industry clients but plenty of others, including Ford, Nike and Target. It works both independently and in partnership with ad agencies, though it insists on being invited in at the beginning of a project.
“One of our biggest concerns is ownership of ideas,” says minister of technology Joshua Hirsch. “If you’re building someone else’s ideas, you’re automatically going to be careless. The work’s not going to have that same detail and polish.”
Needless to say, another big challenge for the firm today is explaining what it does. It calls itself a digital creative agency, and during client presentations, it officially says it has three divisions: broadcast, interactive and games. In reality, none of them exist, and all employees are integrated in a single creative department.
“We’ve got a crew with a set of skills,” explains Hirsch. “Those skills can be utilized and deployed in a number of different ways. We say that we’ve got a broadcast division and an interactive division, but it’s all the same people doing the work.” From a process standpoint, the Spaceship uses a flat and inclusive creative flow. RFPs come in and are assigned to multidisciplinary groups. These groups include everyone from copywriters to backend coders, all of whom help hash out an idea. They stay in contact throughout the project, even if they’re not directly involved with the work being done.
The result is a remarkably broad portfolio, with everything from games and Web sites to video projections. Ninety percent of the current work is realized in Flash, but that’s merely because, as Hirsch puts it, at the moment, Flash is the best platform for experiential design.
The firm’s projects are known for their creative approaches to traditional media. A good example is its recent Web site for HBO Voyeur. The initial campaign, developed by BBDO, involved projecting a series of silent films on a large wall as though viewers were looking through an apartment building’s open windows while dramas played out inside.
The Web presence Big Spaceship created used the medium in a surprising way. Typical Web video, such as that found on YouTube, is presented in a neutral frame, making the user experience much like watching television. Alternatively, HBO Voyeur put the video inside a graphical setting. Users experience the stories by looking through a window surrounded by a sash. This allowed for a remarkable sequence in which the viewer/watcher is actually discovered by one of the characters from the films, who then comes to the “apartment” and confronts him.
“It’s an example of where things are going,” says Hirsch. “It’s watching short pieces that are extended by being in this environment, which connects directly to the content...they’re enhanced by the container they’re displayed in.”
The firm’s other projects often blur the line between digital and traditional agencies. For example, it recently partnered with Arnold Worldwide on Hungrysuitcase.com, a project for Royal Caribbean International, but the role it played went well beyond that of a production firm.
The site’s main feature was a character, a suitcase named Sammy. He asks users to pack him, set him up on dates and a hundred other things. While not surprising in and of itself, the idea of creating something first on the Web and then expanding it out to additional media is a new trend.
“From a strategic perspective, it’s not a microsite,” says Lebowitz. “It’s a character who can extend across the Web, print and broadcast as well.”
In other words, Big Spaceship and other interactive agencies are slowly moving into roles typically reserved for branding or advertising agencies. In the jumbled world of digital promotion today, that may be a sign of more involved campaigns to come.
For now though, Lebowitz and company prefer not to talk about where they’re headed. They are exploring new technologies like Adobe air, and like to say that they will continue to have fun. Most of all, they concentrate on keeping their team educated, motivated and flexible. For them, it’s not so much about predicting the future, as being ready for it when it comes.
“If you had asked me about the future five years ago, I would not have predicted this,” says Lebowitz. “To look five years in the future is impossible, and anyone who thinks they can is lying. What’s really interesting is being part of the consistent tectonic shift that is happening in this space. It changes so much and so fast.”
For the record, seven short years ago, Lebowitz was working out of an apartment. He knows what he’s talking about. ca