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Agency Profile: Big Spaceship

Posted on June 8, 2010 and read 8,754 times

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0 4184 Agency Profile: Big SpaceshipKrystal Plomatos
Brand Strategist
ihaveanidea Correspondent

How To Enter A Spaceship. Specifically, Big Spaceship.

Big Spaceship is nestled in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and not the flying elephant, for you non-New Yorkers out there.) Getting there is as easy as following the balmy waterfront breeze, making sure you don’t let the inevitable craving for the nearby and beyond famous Grimaldi’s Pizza distract you from arriving at your intended destination — 45 Main Street.

You’ll find that the location is quite a hive of activity; the winding hallways are a typical industrial grey, perhaps a deliberate and clever guise to conceal the inner-workings of the creative shops that inhabit the building. You see, Big Spaceship may have been docked at Suite 716 since 2000, they’re not the only creatively minded company in the building. On the way upstairs you might pass people from places like Huge Inc. and Domani Studios.

Upon entering Big Spaceship, I was greeted by the sound of Chantilly Lace — apparently Big Bopper’s 1958 album was included in a time capsule in the building — which was followed up with a warm hello from Nikki at the front desk. Big Spaceship may be fans of cutting edge technology, but Nikki is not an animated holograph- she’s one of us.

Take Me To Your Leader

From there I was on my way to meet with Michael Lebowitz, Founder and CEO of Big Spaceship. The first thing you’ll notice when you talk to Michael is his ever-present smile; whether he’s talking about the iPhone app his son loves to play on his phone or the challenge of moving clients away from the TV broadcast mindset, you can tell he genuinely and thoroughly enjoys what he does. That’s precisely the quality that I think that emanates throughout Big Spaceship and the work they produce: they bring such humanity to technology. You might think that for a company with such technological prowess that everyone must be a programmer or coder who spends all their face time on touchscreens and track pads- but the reality is that everyone at Big Spaceship is just as firmly rooted in what’s going on in our analog life as they are brilliant at revolutionizing our digital life.

What Powers A Big Spaceship? The Right Mix of Minds

As a strategist, imagine my delight when the first thing you notice when you approach the workspace in Big Spaceship is ‘Strategy Row’. Strategy Row is where all strategists sit together, working on different client projects but collaborating with strategists on other projects rather than competing with them. So if you’re working on Victoria’s Secret and questioning whether your strategy on VSAllAccess.com is affording too much all-access, you can easily ask your neighbor working on Sony’s Death at a Funeral whether you’re strategizing objectively. Take a moment to consider the significance of this – you encounter strategists before you move your way towards the desks occupied by the designers, producers and engineers. Form follows function right? So it was no surprise that Lebowitz stated:

“Everything we do is firmly rooted in an insight. Our producers and engineers don’t come to Big Spaceship just for the sake of building something cool or never-been-done before — unless it’s grounded in a human truth.”

Don’t get too panicky, creative artistes. While strategists might kick off the assignment, from there on out, all four disciplines are very hands-on and involved in the creative process. Credit is due to Big Spaceship for being a text book example of how important it is to encourage integration and collaboration among disciplines. No batons are passed at Big Spaceship.

While the notion of ‘baton-passing’ or ‘working in siloed conditions’ are increasingly becoming a relic of “the old way of doing things”, ever since its inception in 2000, Big Spaceship has set an example for innovating the formation of creative teams. For each project, Big Spaceship assigns their people into small teams that behave like intra-agency agencies. These mini-agencies are comprised of a perfect blend of Strategists, Engineers, Producers and Designers appropriate for the client project. From there, each mini-agency develops a name and logo, complete with a birthing ceremony to announce to the rest of the agency who’s working on what. According to Michael, birthing ceremonies include but are not limited to: “the composing of original songs, team crests waved on flags, applications developed and significant use of our in-house smoke machine.” Click here to learn how one of the latest teams, The Stephanies, topped all birthing ceremonies.

Do you fancy yourself a Candy Robot, a Special Bear, Cobra Kai, a denizen of the Squid Republic, or maybe you belong to the tribe of Cheapies Playhaus, as depicted in Sarah Calvillo’s branding below?

cheapie 01 Agency Profile: Big Spaceship

Are There Superstars in Big Spaceship?

In case you’ve been assuming that those who work at Big Spaceship must have some special DNA, Michael will tell you: It’s not like we have more talent than any other agency, and it’s not like we have some superstar who’s just driving our success along, it’s just that we like each other here, we like what we do, and we approach it from a position of passion and joy and there’s no ego here.”

I get the sense that there are lot of agencies where its important to declare things like: ‘That’s my idea.’ You see that person desperately trying to hold on to that credit because they need that recognition to move along in their career. One thing that makes Big Spaceship markedly different is that “Here it’s not all about ‘my idea’ – what I mean by that is: culturally we don’t give individual credits,” says Michael. “When you look at the credits for our work that wins awards- it just reads ‘Big Spaceship’ because its our product, collectively together. I can safely say that we don’t have any superstars  — or conversely, we’re all superstars. It’s because everybody here makes everybody better. There’s not a focus on individuals. Instead it’s on team and cultures.

Talk At Big Spaceship

If you’re reading this article hoping for a secret formula in order to replicate Big Spaceship’s success, I think I I’ve decoded it for you:

Talk to all your people, regularly.

Michael explains this a little more: “Everyone at Big Spaceship is entitled to 360° reviews every six months. You write yourself a self-review, each person on your team writes comments, and you evaluate your manager and Big Spaceship as a whole. Your review asks you two questions: ‘What’s the thing you value most?’ and “What’s the thing you would improve?’ And 98.5% of the time, the answer to the former is “People and our culture.”

More Talk: Big Spaceship’s Show & Tell Fridays

On Fridays, the agency gets together to share what everyone is working on. The new business team replicates whatever pitch they just completed, complete with the same questions the clients asked. This gives everyone in the agency a sense of ownership because they learn exactly how their ideas held up outside of Big Spaceship.

Friends of Big Spaceship

“We also invite a lot of people from ‘outside’ to come in and talk about their work and what inspires them,” says Michael. “For example, Vivian Rosenthal of Tronic was just in. Tronic does a lot of motion graphics but they come from an architecture background, and they’re wildly talented. And our strategy team recently held a breakfast salon with the folks from the New York Public Library, and we’ll have Khoi Vinh, the Design Director for the New York Times come by for a chat. We know a lot of people here in New York, so we like to take advantage of knowing people where everyone passes through.”


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Commanders In Chief at Big Spaceship

As you might imagine, Spaceships are incredibly busy places. Especially a Big Spaceship. I walked by The Minister of Technology, Joshua Hirsch. He was on technology of the mobile and hand-held type at the time, so I didn’t have the chance to talk to him personally. However, I wish I could have met the rock star of the programming world; Michael later referenced a story about how he’s seen coders/programmers become speechless and tremble in admiration while asking him for an autograph at conferences. The man’s got a contingent of Coder fanboys. impressive.

I also missed out on meeting Ivan Askwith the Director of Strategy, who was out of the office at the time. Regardless, you should definitely check out the bios of the other leaders within Big Spaceship. Their life experiences and interests span the galaxy and back.

Do You Belong on a Spaceship?

Based on the number of bikes lined up in the Gamer’s corridor, I’d argue bikes are their preferred mode of transportation. If you’re an avid biker, then Big Spaceship might be the Spaceship for you. If you’re a White-Space-Makes-the-World-A-Better Place kinda person, you might belong here. At Big Spaceship, there is no shortage of white boards. Several walls are painted with whiteboard paint, and a specially designed markable screen was installed in order to both diffuse the sun’s glare on monitors, while also allowing another surface for people to jot down ideas and reactions to work-in-progress. No matter your coordinates in Big Spaceship, you’re always within a marker’s reach of living ideas and space to watch them grow.

Do you like to build and invent in an offline world? Tucked behind the ping pong table I found my favorite corner: there’s a little nook stuffed with art supplies for hands that have insatiable urges to make things. It was there that I saw the original pieces they hand-made in order to create the gorgeous stop motion interactive experience for Tim Burton exhibit on display at the MoMa this spring

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Big Spaceship has an immutable No-Hiring-of-Assholes policy. If you are, go back to where you came from. Your kind will not survive here; it’s far too collaborative of an environment.

Life Outside of Big Spaceship

I asked Michael about life in and around DUMBO neighborhood. DUMBO is quite a haven for creative & techie types. Every month, a group known as Digital DUMBO hosts a mixer for the best digital minds to come and network, showcase local talent, educate, and facilitate idea exchange. But Big Spaceship was the first to break ground and establish DUMBO as a New York mecca for digital minds. As Michael puts it: “It’s great thinking about how now our area is sometimes referred to as Digital DUMBO. We’ve been here since it was more like Analog DUMBO, actually, Tumbleweeds DUMBO.”

That’s pretty reassuring for a digital creative agency to maintain such longevity (they did weather the 2001 dotcom apocalypse),  especially when we tend to associate success in digital as such a fleeting, ephemeral thing given today’s rate of change.

Voyeur and the Patriarch

While the incident with HBO Voyeur & BBDO certainly got blown out in the press, I had a feeling there was a bigger story that was never given proper attention. The press was busy trying to paint Michael Lebowitz as a poster boy for clamoring-for-credit, but after chatting with him, the founder and CEO acts more like a benevolent patriarch, always looking out for his people.

ihaveanidea: How did the Voyeur/BBDO/Big Spaceship incident affect the vibe inside the walls of Big Spaceship?

Michael: Internally, it was actually a healthy thing to have happen. Morale changed for the better. There was a stronger sense of ownership, a more tight-knit bond.The only reason I spoke up was because I really wanted the team that had worked so hard to be valued – otherwise I wouldn’t have said anything. It’s not about getting awards. We have lots of awards, that’s not what you fight for. But to have my teams’ work diminished – is a pretty serious thing for me. Obviously everyone’s gonna feel good when you go to bat for them. and that’s what I did. I think people appreciate it – it’s natural that you want to be valued. We don’t look for individual credits, but when you work really hard on something, you want it to be applauded, not diminished.

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ihaveanidea: So while the media makes everything seem like such a bigger and more heated issue, the real lesson buried in there about how to behave and how to react and respond under duress.

Michael: Exactly. A brand cannot be perfect. We all understand that social media makes brands made more transparent – so it’s not about not making mistakes, it’s about how you manage when you do make mistakes.Because how you handle yourself in face of adversity might be the thing that inspires the most passion.

Here’s a good example of this: my friend has the best brand story about his passion for a certain butter brand. Yes, butter — the lowest interest category in the world. So my friend works on the brand side. For whatever reason he always bought this one brand of butter. There was one instance where he bought it and it was rancid. But because he works on the brand side,  he knew how to look for the lot number. So he looked up customer support and sent them an email with the lot number saying ‘Just wanted to let you know this batch may be rancid, so here’s the tracking number so you can pull the rest of out of stores.’And then customer support immediately emailed him back saying; ‘Wow! All we ever hear are complaints, but you gave us really valuable information. Thank you so much- here’s a year supply of free butter.’

So, from this otherwise negative experience that was handled correctly, my friend now has more passion for a butter brand than anyone outside of the butter industry itself. It’s how you react when things go unexpectedly that I find really interesting. With the Voyeur incident, we certainly saw that, and I think it’s important for both agencies and clients to understand that it can happen to you.

ihaveanidea: How do you manage expectations with clients? To what extent do they “get” what you do and what makes you different?

Michael: Clients in general are really savvy about their business, as they should be. And the most valuable thing you can bring to the table is knowing what you don’t know. If a client or an agency thinks they know things that they don’t actually know, then that’s the most destructive thing. For example, we don’t claim to produce TV spots. While we may know the basics – it’s not something we’re really rooted in. Whereas, you see a lot of agencies that really know how to do TV, that are suddenly claiming that they know digital when they don’t, or at least they don’t know it intimately. So we only work with clients and agencies that can say ‘I’ve hired you because you have an expertise I don’t have.’ It’s not going to work if they treat us just like an execution company or production company, because we’re not built like that. We have a robust strategy practice. Strategy is the powerful core of everything we do, and every decision we make is rooted in an insight.

ihaveanidea: With as many awards as you have under your belt, is there anything too tough to handle even for Big Spaceship?

Michael: The hardest part we have to do, is that you have to do everything fast. It’s a real-time world. We have to produce really quickly. Our recommendation to clients is: ‘Don’t look at this like its TV —where it’s all built around one moment with a massive paid media buy and it has to be perfect — in order to hedge bets as much as possible for success because millions of dollars in paid media have been invested.

And why would you do that, when the real power of the internet is that you can publish, republish republish, republish, endlessly iterate and optimize for free?

Yes, you still need best practices and programs to ignite demand to check out the stuff that’s out there. But don’t create this super polished blockbuster and just put it into world and hope people come. Instead, put something small, or lots of small things into the world. That’s the beauty of putting something beta into world:you immediately get to track what resonates and what doesn’t. So use the fact that people are willing to help you and give comments to your advantage.

I think that’s the thing that’s so antithetical to the infrastructure of how brand communications have been built up unto this point. It’s hard for some clients to shift out of the TV Broadcast is King mindset, simply because they aren’t used to much else, which makes it challenging.

I’d much rather put something that’s a thesis into the world where we say ‘We think that this is going to happen.’ If it does, great! Let’s polish and amplify it, and engage it further. And if it doesn’t, then at least we didn’t invest as much money like you used to have to do with TV. And when you fail in digital, all that means is ‘That nobody came- then it’s just quiet. And quiet is good when discussing how to do something better the next time around.”

ihaveanidea: On your Labs Blog, I read the post “A Plea for Developer Unity” by Jamie Kosoy. And even for people with only a basic understanding of developing such as myself, it was so well constructed and simplified. So, is that a litmus test for hiring your Engineers and Producers- do you require that they can write as well as they can build?

Michael: No, not necessarily. We use the expression “Go Where the Energy Is” a lot around here. And what we mean by that is that you’re never going to make someone quiet talkative. It’s never gonna happen. Instead, we figure out where the energy is and go to that. I guess it’s hard to do if you’re running a much larger company, but here we hire people — not roles. So we need to know who they are, and how they do their best work. Jamie has a natural writing voice. We don’t do a lot of command and control, so when he wanted to write that piece, we said ‘go for it.’ But we don’t expect everyone to have that same desire. You get to do what you’re excited to work on.

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Debunking Myths & Misperceptions of Big Spaceship

Big Spaceship doesn’t really create advertising, so don’t call them an ad agency. They bill themselves as a digital creative agency. In life on Big Spaceship, there’s no such thing as a Creative Director. I call nobody a creative director,” says Michael. “We have a Design Director, who is the senior most person, but if you’re not creative, you can’t work here. Then I’d have to call everyone a Creative [Insert Specialty Here] and then suddenly the title has no meaning. For example, Producers are the least understood and appreciated, and they’re some of the most creative people I can think of. They have to creatively solve things on both a technical and diplomatic level, but I don’t call them Creative Producers. There is no fountain from which all creativity spills. I think a good CD helps sharpen other peoples work and that’s great, but if you have peers from all different disciplines shaping your work, then I think that’s even more powerful.

Big Spaceship is Always Farming for Fresh Talent

One thing we’re really proud of is that we have a very thoughtful and well-managed internship program,” Michael explains when asked about where they find new talent. “It’s a core part of of how we bring people in. Many of our interns become full time staff. For example, one of our recent design interns put together a ‘look and feel’ piece for a project along with three other of our designers. It was his work that got selected. We thought that was great. The whole company was literally applauding an intern, genuinely applauding. Most places wouldn’t let interns even be in that situation to have that moment of great success. We do

Applause? Really?

“I’m not kidding! There’s lots of spontaneous applause around here. Almost everyday you hear it, and you’re like ‘What, what, what what’s going on? Everything from someone’s birthday or ‘did you see someone’s work on this…

You can check out Big Spaceship’s website here for requirements for their kick-ass, applause garnering internships, but at a glance, they offer internships in: Strategy, Production, Design and Development. They last 3-6 months and run quarterly: Winter (Jan-March), Spring (March-June), Summer (June-Sept) and Autumn (Sept-Dec)

__________________________

After leaving Big Spaceship, there was no way I couldn’t take advantage of some of DUMBO’s delights before heading back into Manhattan. I just had to  indulge in a pizza slice from Grimaldi’s, followed by heading over to Superfine for perhaps the best Bloody Mary in the city. Superfine is also your best bet for additional sightings of the Big Spaceship crew. Even they need to refuel once in a while!

Many thanks to Michael Lebowitz, Nikki Loffredo and the Big Spaceship folks that didn’t mind me shamelessly snap pictures while they were working.







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