The awards. The string of client wins. The continued expansion in a bad year. Firstborn is arguably the hottest digital agency on the planet. And why stop at digital? Advertising Age recently rated the firm as the 8th best advertising agency in the U.S. Fast Company named it 33rd most innovative company of any kind. Not bad for a company that works as a production house about half the time.
For all that, Firstborn is surprisingly small. It has only 50 employees and operates out of an unpretentious location in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. It works happily for large agencies, like Wunderman and Droga5, and has its own direct clients like Aflac and SoBe. In the big picture, it is a practical, business-first firm.
There is a difference however. Its execution borders on the fanatical. Most digital firms can do 3-D, but the models Firstborn made for a recent M&M’s site were so good that the client used them in a television commercial. Its car customizer for Mustang—normally a throwaway on an automotive site—was so realistic and nuanced that more than one million cars have been created on it.
“To me it’s a simple game when you break it down,” says CEO and founder Michael Ferdman. “You have to realize the nature of the beast, assemble the very best team you can, trust them and know that it’s not always going to be perfect.”
To understand Firstborn, you have to start with Ferdman, who is one of the more unconventional digital CEOs you’ll meet. Thin, athletic, with a shaved head, he looks much more like a hockey player (which he is), who has taken his share of elbows, than a designer (which he isn’t). Ferdman is a fan of Bob Dylan, horse racing and the Chicago Blackhawks—a statement that probably describes no other person in the industry. He rarely travels, doesn’t blog and largely allows president Dan LaCivita to be the public face of the company. He even works out of an office five floors below the rest of his team.
“I think it’s empowering when they feel it’s their show,” he says. “I don't feel the need to be hovering over them.”
Ferdman may be a big delegator, but it’s hard to pin the ultimate responsibility for the company’s success on anyone else. He founded Firstborn in 1997 with his cousin Mark Ferdman and $200,000 in startup capital from his father-in-law, Barry K. Schwartz, then the CEO of Calvin Klein, Inc. Thanks to his connections in the fashion industry, the new agency was almost instantly profitable. It also proved very good at what it did. In 2000, a site for fashion designer Yigal Azrouel attracted the attention of Madonna, which opened many doors.
Since then Firstborn has been remarkable for the consistency of its work as well as the turnover of its staff. Over time, every major creative role has been replaced: technologists, producers, creative directors and everyone in between. The list even includes Mark Ferdman, who was bought out in 2002, but somehow, Firstborn bounces back stronger than ever before.
“Michael will let us do anything,” explains JoonYong Park. “For me as a creative director, there’s no barrier. He knows what he’s good at. He trusts us, and that’s the most important part.”
The payback for this freedom is that Firstborn is a very intense, hardworking place. A look at a recent recruiting video shows that the firm is relatively young and not necessarily well-groomed. One shot is particularly indicative of the firm’s mentality: It shows a cup of coffee being repeatedly lifted up for a drink.
“This is not a nine-to-six kind of place,” Ferdman concedes, “You have to have a lot of dedication. You have to be able to work very well alone, but also in a collaborative way... Everyone feels like they won’t be here forever. There’s a life expectancy for a place like this.”
The creative part of Firstborn occupies a sleek, 9,000-square-foot space with its own green screen studio. With Ferdman delegating most of the creative responsibilities normally taken by CEOs, this area belongs to LaCivita, Park and technical director Francis Turmel.
In many ways, they work like any digital agency. They eschew the traditional copywriter/art director model in favor of close collaboration between disciplines. Coding teams are highly collaborative and have developed a number of proprietary and publicly released tools. Designers can code; coders can design; and just about everyone can architect a site.
Their process does have some quirks, however, most of which deal with communication. For example, Firstborn rewrites every brief it receives, translating it into a common language that the team understands. The firm performs a similar process on the conceptual comps and prototypes it presents to clients.
“If we show something [to clients] when we are trying to sell a strategic approach or idea as opposed to a design treatment, we purposely make it look bad,” says LaCivita. “We don’t want them to get attached to it...We don’t want them to comment on a look, but on the idea.”
Another difference is a very strong emphasis on “producers,” a role that encompasses both project management and client relations. Firstborn doesn’t have account executives, but relies instead on this hybrid role to ensure smooth communications and on-time delivery. Ferdman allows each of his producers to work on only two projects at once, which frees up Park and Turmel to design and code much more than is common for most people in their roles. “Producers are our unsung heroes,” says Ferdman.
To get an idea of Firstborn’s creative range, it’s best to start with its most unconventional project. In 2007, Digital Kitchen came to the firm with a surprising request for Microsoft. They wanted Firstborn to create an application that could take pictures from a kiosk and project them on the outside of a seven-story sphere.
The deadline was brutal, only two weeks, but Park and Turmel had long wanted to expand Firstborn beyond the Web, so they eagerly took it on. Because of the size of the projection, they decided to work in Processing, a Java-based visual programming language that handles large numbers of objects well. They also dumped the traditional workflow in which the designer first creates imagery and hands it over to the programmer.
“With print or any other media, you design something first and then print it or produce it,” says Park. “But with Processing, we had to start programming right away, and we developed the design as we were going.”
Fortunately, Park also has a programming background, so he began to work straightaway by manipulating code. His design, which was never rendered in Photoshop, used the brightness and contrast of the images to create a face-like image out of thousands of pictures. To make it work, Turmel spent an entire sleepless week learning the ins and outs of Processing while creating the application.
The project went down to the wire, with Turmel plugging memory leaks at three in the morning before the launch, but as usual, Firstborn delivered. The installation debuted on a bitterly cold night and was successful enough to be renewed for a second day (much to the dismay of the exhausted team).
“We wish we’d had more time,” says Turmel, who, like much of the firm, is highly self-critical. “We could have done something better.”
A more conventional approach can be found with the company’s work for agency Droga5 on a site for Puma L.I.F.T., an ultra-light running shoe. The experience is straightforward and fun. Users select and weigh a variety of ridiculous objects (condoms, sea urchins) against the shoe. What’s remarkable is that on a reasonably fast connection, the videos usually play with no load time. Such a feat required an intelligent engine that guesses and ghost loads the video streams that are most likely to be requested next.
A final side of Firstborn can be seen in the car customizer for Mustang 2009, mentioned previously. Rethinking such a hoary old chestnut of design was not easy, but the firm showed both a creative understanding of its market and superb technical capabilities.
“We knew we had a fan base that was totally fanatical,” says LaCivita. “So the idea was, can we create a customizer experience that emulates a video game? People spend five-to-ten minutes on a Web site, but they spend hours playing video games.”
To do this, Firstborn devised a collaborative engine that allows teams of visitors to work together to create Mustangs of their own. They can apply a wide range of effects, from mud splashes to graffiti to painted flames. When done, they can publish their car to an online gallery, where others can vote on it. While no one idea in this project can be said to be entirely original, the execution was so perfect, the 3-D lighting so realistic, the coloring so rich, that the site was a huge hit.
Firstborn’s competitive nature has produced its share of admirers and detractors. Not all ex-employees speak positively about their experiences there; a few have even become public critics. For his part, Ferdman readily admits that the firm isn’t right for everyone and that he has a quick hand when it comes to letting people go. In a world of paper-thin egos, that has consequences.
But while Ferdman can be very self-critical, he seems happy with where the firm is today. He’s had opportunities to sell out and move on to something else, but he’s always refused. Firstborn remains independent and fiercely so.
“We have a bunch of people who love what they do...and who want to be better,” he says. “Whatever they envisioned before they got here, they don't want to drop that ball...That feeling is a hard thing to get and a scary thing when it goes away, so I spend my time thinking of how to keep it alive.” ca