Ad agencies wanting to work with Big Spaceship are immediately made aware of a few facts. First, explains ceo and founder Michael Lebowitz, “We’re not here to make you look like you ‘get’ digital: we don’t ‘white label’ our work. The client has to be at least aware that we are providing the services that we are. We get a seat at the client meetings and all credits have to be shared appropriately. Most importantly,” Lebowitz continues, “we’re not a production company: we lead with strategy and innovation, so if you’re not engaging with us at the ‘ideation’ stage of the project then we’re not interested in engaging with you.”
If you can forgive the awful neology of ‘ideation’, Lebowitz is refreshingly straightforward in his dealings with what have become known as ‘traditional’ agencies. If he sounds a little abrupt, it’s with good cause. As he explains in Big Spaceship’s Brooklyn studio, commissioning agencies aren’t always transparent when it comes to revealing just who came up with the ideas they charge their clients for. One creative director at a major US agency, he says, recently presented a campaign that is currently picking up major awards to an industry conference without mentioning Big Spaceship’s involvement at all.
In the scramble to prove to clients that they ‘get digital’, the traditional agencies are not always honest about who is doing the getting.
Big Spaceship certainly does ‘get it’. Founded by Lebowitz in 2000, the agency originally made its name creating websites for major Hollywood films but has now widened its portfolio to work with big brands such as hbo, Adobe and Nike, sometimes alongside traditional agencies, sometimes directly. The former involves a degree of education. “We explain that digital is not like the tv spot business where you can write a script and describe a style and pass it off to a production company. This is more like architecture or software where there’s too many things to figure out to say ‘I know what I want to do I just don’t know how to build it’. You can write a script for a film without having to understand how to film it but you cannot write an idea for an interactive campaign without understanding how it will come together. The big agencies aren’t moving very quickly to a true understanding of what digital is.”
But aren’t the traditional, big agencies more advanced in the US when it comes to digital? “They’re not advanced anywhere,” laughs Lebowitz. “Big agencies are big agencies: they’re slow, they can’t change culturally. It’s not like they’re dumb – they all have brilliant people who I’d love to have working here – it’s that their structures are really old and set in stone so how do you break something like that down from the inside out, especially when you’re still making the bulk of your money from the traditional work that system feeds? I think they’re in no small degree of trouble. We did a presentation at an agency recently, and we were talking about how we engage with agencies and someone said ‘If the client’s aware of you, and you’ll only work if you’re involved from concept phase forward, why wouldn’t they just go directly to you?’ I gave him a very diplomatic answer along the lines that we have no interest in the kind of retained relationship that they have with clients but the reality was that he was spelling out his own agency’s demise.”
Lebowitz is incisively critical of the traditional agency model: “I looked up the definition of ‘agency’ to make sure that we are one: it comes from ‘agent’, someone representing the best interests of a third party. I thought ‘we’re more of an agency than bbdo, we’re more of an agency than jwt’.” Lebowitz questions whether such companies are truly representing the best interest of their clients “by pulling in work in areas where they don’t have the expertise and in sending 27 people to each meeting just to keep their billings high … they’re representing the best interests of themselves and their holding companies.”
Can Lebowitz see a point where Big Spaceship also works in traditional media? “From a planning perspective certainly. Our ethos is that digital leads because it is the only place where you can have a persistent, ongoing dialogue with the consumer. We always start by asking what are our business goals, what are our limitations in time, money and so on? Then, what is the story we’re trying to tell or the conversation we’re trying to start? Then we go into ideation and it fills out from there. We’ll define the campaign and the brand identity in digital space and then, this is being a bit cheeky, but the idea is that we’ll call jwt and say ‘hey, we need some print – here’s the style’.” But they don’t want retained relationships with clients: “We want to be the swat team not the beat cops,” is how he puts it. “We’re about innovation and ideas – we love to make new things.”
And, says Lebowitz, the nature of those “new things” has moved on. “The audience defines the rules of engagement now so you have to provide value. The idea of just messaging is dead. You can either provide entertainment or function or you can just die – that’s the proposition now. More and more we’re building functional things, developing products – thinking ‘what will help the people this brand’s trying to talk to?’. If we can get out of the mindset that it’s all about pretty pictures, the whole thing will advance faster.”
As with that other forward-thinking New York agency, Anomaly, Big Spaceship has retained ownership of a lot of the intellectual property that it has created, particularly the engines that it has built to run online games, which it licences out to third parties. “We try to retain ownership of everything that isn’t a visual asset – although it depends on the client,” says Lebowitz.
The day after our meeting, Lebowitz is off to Las Vegas to attend the launch of the Society of Digital Agencies (Soda), a new organisation set up by Lebowitz and his peers in the US to advocate their interests. Unsurprisingly, given what he has been saying, one of Soda’s first tasks will be to draw up a set of industry guidelines to cover agencies’ terms of engagement with clients. “We’ve talked about putting all our standard legal documents together and hiring a lawyer to get best practice out of all of them – the best letter of intent, the best terms and conditions and so on,” he explains. “We could then give them to the entire industry in the hope they were valuable.”
Soda’s other pressing concern is to address the crippling talent shortage afflicting the industry.
“It’s going to be a big problem – we’re going into a recession but I’m not worried about a lack of work in digital, I’m worried that there’s such a talent shortage that the cost of labour is going to go up and up. All the general agencies who are losing to the recession from their traditional work are hiring people on the digital side on obscene salaries just so they can look like they get digital. The margins for the work are going to collapse, so even if work’s there, it may not be possible to do it. During the bubble [in the late 90s], anyone that could open Photoshop successfully was given a senior designer position. When the bubble popped we were actually still hiring and for those first two years
I was getting design applications that I wouldn’t even consider for an intern. So I’m worried that now we are going to lose innovation because we will pull in people who are under qualified to do the work just to keep the work going. Suddenly we’re going to look like bad tv instead of the most innovative medium in whole world.”