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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Michael Lebowitz
Michael Lebowitz

lebowitzinside Michael LebowitzFounder and CEO
Big Spaceship

Hey advertising creatives! Allow me to let you all in on a little secret about the future of the ad business. Are you ready? Here it goes…

The future is digital.

Okay, okay, maybe that isn’t such a revelation. But it wasn’t that long ago when things like super-interactive websites, mobile content and social networking were mere buzzwords, shiny new baubles on the peripheral of your 30 TV spot centred campaign. You weren’t tweeting two years ago, you weren’t Facebooking three years ago, you weren’t YouTubing five years ago.

But five years ago, Michael Lebowitz was already getting set to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Big Spaceship, the digital creative shop he founded out in Brooklyn, NYC. And even before Big Spaceship, Michael was tooling about in a digital realm while the rest of us were still on dial-up.

Nowadays the ad world is embracing digital (in practice or in theory) and Michael is at the forefront, guiding us newcomers to the digital creative revolution and learning a thing or three about Madison Avenue in the process. We had a chance to chit-chat with the man about his early beginnings, the birth of Big Spaceship, and his thoughts on living peacefully with the “traditional” ad world.

ihaveanidea: A lot of the people we’ve interviewed in the past have long, well documented advertising careers. You, on the other hand, come from a world that has only been perceived as “advertising” over the past few years. Take us into this world. How did it all begin?

Michael: I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I was fortunate enough to have some cool early technology in my home. We had the first Atari Pong system, the one with just the wired paddles. We also had one of the first VCRs, a top-loading, fake wood-paneled, 75 pound monster. The VCR allowed my dad, who was a huge movie buff, to give me a tremendous education in all different genres of classic movies, from silent films to Marx Brothers to Bogart to Orson Welles. We also got the second Mac, the MacIntosh 512, when that came out, and I was completely blown away by it. Even before that, I coveted my friends’ Apple II computers, and I used Logo programming at school and loved it. Later on when I was about eleven, we had a 2400-baud modem, and I set up my own bulletin board. The problem was the modem was so slow, only one person could visit my bulletin board at a time.

My parents are both academics, people of words. My mother is an editor and a manuscript developer, and my father is an English professor and novelist. There’s definitely a relationship between what they did and all of my interests, but I guess I went further away from words on a page and into other communication methods.

ihaveanidea: So I guess you knew right away what you wanted to do in life.

Michael: Actually no. I went to school at Vasser College in upstate New York, but I didn’t declare a major until my junior year. I was playing about quite a bit, taking some computer science and getting into a multidisciplinary department called American Culture. This was a combination of sociology, anthropology, English, writing-really understanding our culture from multiple perspectives. (laughs) I think that’s more advantageous to me now than it was back then, by a long shot.

But in the end I settled on Film, and I loved it. We were the very last class before the school got an Avid editing system, so this meant I was cutting 16mm by hand, using tape, losing frames, cutting my fingers, working at 4 AM.

ihaveanidea: A little bloodshed is always good for the business…

Michael: It was fun, but I was always jealous of the kids in the program the year after me, who got to use the Avid system!

The great thing about college is that you paid $100 a semester and got to shoot all the film you wanted, and you’re the director every time. I knew that would not be the case once I graduated. Instead it would be a lot of working for free, polishing lenses and hustling a lot to maybe shoot a tiny bit of film if I was lucky. This didn’t appeal to me at all.

The film world was just starting to change then, but as it stood, the equipment costs were just too high to do your own thing. Hi-8 cameras, the standard back then, were too much money. My friends who were still forging ahead could only buy 16mm cameras. Things just weren’t cheap yet, and I think if all of this had happened to me just a few years later, my life would’ve taken a very different course, and I definitely would’ve been in film.

Fortunately I was noodling with computers the whole time. I had done software testing and a little bit of programming, and in college I used the internet for the first time, when Mosaic was the only visible web browser.

ihaveanidea: So where does a guy in your position go? I mean today, film and computers are practically inseparable at all levels, but not so back in the 90s.

Michael: My first inclination was to apply for a job at Avid, because I wanted to put those two skill sets together. I didn’t hear back from them, so I decided to move to New York City. Avid eventually did get back to me, but by then it was too late, I had fallen in love with New York and didn’t want to leave. I ended up writing for a trade magazine, but I got sick of that rather quickly. But times were tough then. I remember sending out 200 resumes and getting only one response – and remember, this was before email and other digital technology, so those were 200 physical resumes! It was pretty painful.

“I moved back to New York and promptly got a job at a digital agency out of the back of the print edition of The Village Voice.

I decided to leave for the west coast, to clear my head and change my perspective of things. While I was out there, I played around with the web, learning bits and pieces as I went along. HTML, rudimentary design work using PageMaker, that kinda thing. But after a year or so, I started getting calls from friends back in New York. When I had left them, they were impoverished, but now they were saying “wow, we’re making more money now than we’d ever thought we’d make in our lives!” Of course, this was the beginning of the tech bubble. I moved back to New York and promptly got a job at a digital agency out of the back of the print edition of The Village Voice.

ihaveanidea: Wow, that easy to land a digital job back then, huh?

Michael: (laughs) I’m loving this grandfatherly look back on “the old days.”

Back then, everybody was skipping from agency to agency every few months in order to up their salaries, because there was so much money out there to be had. I took a different approach and hunkered down in the one shop, watching everything and trying to learn as much as possible. I stayed there for about three years, then left and started Big Spaceship. Yes, Big Spaceship is only my second job in this industry.

ihaveanidea: What made you even think you could start your own digital shop?

Michael: Tremendous naivety, arrogance and hubris. (laughs) If I had known then what I know now, I never would’ve had the balls to do it, so being naïve played out positively.

“I felt that there had become a really big disconnect between who was making promises to clients and who actually had to make good on those promises.”

The thing about that era, everybody looks back and speaks about how ignorant and painful it all was. The part that nobody talks about, and the part that I love, is that there were no schools for what we were doing. Everybody was self-taught and did so many different things that today are now specialized roles. There was nobody asking “is this or that possible?” because nobody knew the answer…everything was possible. We’d figure out how to do things, we’d hack our way through the jungle. I’m not saying they were the greatest communications solutions in the world or anything! A lot of the knocks against that era are true, but the spirit of adventure, the feeling of not feeling failure, is something that I miss a lot.

Starting Big Spaceship was all about wanting to do really cool work. I felt that there had become a really big disconnect between who was making promises to clients and who actually had to make good on those promises. I wanted to be able to speak to a client directly from the perspective of the people who actually make and understand the stuff. So we left the comfort and the high salaries and leapt to go make that happen in 2000.

ihaveanidea: More like leapt right into the dot-com bubble bursting…

Michael: (laughs) The absolute worst time to start a company!

Very early on, we fell into working with the entertainment industry, which is largely more recession-proof than others, and because we were very small at the beginning, we could accommodate smaller entertainment budgets. Our first client at Big Spaceship was Miramax, the one film studio in New York that made larger scale stuff. We did work for them that was pretty innovative for its time, and soon, my client at Miramax started getting phone calls from Paramount and Sony, asking “who’s doing all this cool work for you? We thought we knew everybody!” because back then, there was a very close-knit base of LA digital agencies doing all the theatrical marketing. So Sony and Paramount called us, and suddenly we had three big clients in short order, and we rode that for a pretty long time, sticking within entertainment media space for about five years. It was great because it let us do the kind of work that was fun for us, and paved the way for the work we do now.

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Soon after this, we had our first opportunity to work on actual brands. One day we got a call from Gucci, who had seen the site we built for the Halle Berry film Gothika. They really liked the way we treated the imagery and type, and soon we were doing work for them. And shortly afterwards, the advertising agencies started to call.

ihaveanidea: I guess that’s right around the time traditional ad agencies started to getting interested in digital. They started their own digital departments and offshoots. How did that make you feel to work with them, as someone who has been involved in it much earlier than just about everybody else?

Michael: I guess I feel differently in different cases. It was interesting for us because for the longest time we were working directly with our clients. I never even realized that I was in or adjacent to the advertising business until about three or four years ago, when the ad agencies started calling. None of us had any traditional advertising backgrounds, and we were located in Brooklyn, far away physically from the ad scene. So when the agencies started calling us, we were like “oh that’s cool, they have some fun brands to work on, let’s do it! Let’s work with them!”

“…big agencies have big challenges because they still make the bulk of their money off of traditional work, and when that happens it’s hard to put digital in the center of it all. ”

We’ve had our successes and our failures in working alongside agencies, and it really just depends on the people in those agencies. I find that big agencies have big challenges because they still make the bulk of their money off of traditional work, and when that happens it’s hard to put digital in the center of it all. I don’t envy the people who are trying to make digital a bigger part of large agencies. There are some really smart, talented, thoughtful people who are taking that challenge, with varying levels of success.

That said, I think the whole “traditional versus digital” conversation is a bit of a distraction. The real question is how do we play nice with each other, because there  are way too many different services available now for one group to hold them all in-house. Besides, the real world doesn’t think this way. Real people don’t say “I’m going into my digital life right now.” They’re just living their lives. We need to think of insights and solutions like that.

ihaveanidea: You’ve been praised and reviled for taking a stand in Cannes on HBO’s “Voyeur” and BBDO’s win for that campaign. There weren’t too many fence-sitters in that debate. How do you feel your stance has affected either Big Spaceship or digital shops in general?

Michael: (laughs) Well I took some lumps for it, but I don’t regret it. Part of the challenge is the whole “big idea” mentality that comes more from the traditional side of advertising. I’m not saying the big idea is dead. I’m saying that any idea unexecuted is of no value whatsoever. In the digital realm, execution and idea are inseparable. Just because the agency-production company dynamic worked in television doesn’t mean it works in digital.

What I’m really happy about after all that nonsense is that it was a pregnant issue with a lot of energy behind it. You wouldn’t have seen such a response, both positive and vitriolic, if people didn’t need to talk about it. The result is that the conversation is happening a lot more.

It led to interesting conversations with a lot really smart people. Not everyone agrees with me, but I value their thoughts just as much as the ones that did agree. I got hundreds of emails, I even received a fax. (laughs) They’re applauding a digital revolution by sending a fax. I’ve had the good fortune to speak to senior leadership at a lot of big agencies, and they tend to “get it.” They want to play nice in the sandbox. I feel very encouraged overall.

“Look at it this way. There’s more than enough sunshine to go around when something succeeds. Let’s all celebrate each other, because all boats rise in high water.”

I’m glad the conversation is out there, and I think everybody needs to have this conversation more. I think the key to it all is for agencies and the companies they work with to have the conversation upfront.  We need to ask “what’s our role in this?” There’s nothing wrong with being a production company, lots of production companies specifically don’t want to be acknowledged as agencies. They’re happy to be production, and I love and respect that, it’s just that we have a different thing going on. And when we have this conversation up front, we don’t want anyone to go back on it once the awards and accolades start rolling in.

Look at it this way. There’s more than enough sunshine to go around when something succeeds. Let’s all celebrate each other, because all boats rise in high water.

Still, on “Voyeur” I think I was fair. I continue to say that BBDO shot an incredible, innovative film. It was our job to figure out how to make that film a natively digital experience, which goes a little beyond being hired coders.

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ihaveanidea: But really, some will say that awards aren’t even relevant, and that this type of argument is such people scratching and scrounging to win a medal…

Michael: That’s not what it’s about. Every industry in the universe has awards. It’s how industries value themselves and figure out what’s valuable within them. The Nebraska Meat Purveyors Association has an award show. Real estate groups in every region have their award shows.

ihaveanidea: I bet they all call each other hacks behind each other’s backs at the reception too.

“…as I start to understand the advertising industry a little better, I find it’s one of the most self-loathing industries I’ve ever seen. ”

Michael: (laughs) Probably, but as I start to understand the advertising industry a little better, I find it’s one of the most self-loathing industries I’ve ever seen. We get to do the coolest, most fun shit. If I wasn’t having so much fun I wouldn’t do any of this, and I don’t know why we hate on ourselves so much.

ihaveanidea: Let’s step away from all of that for a sec, and I mean really step away. What does a guy whose so into digital do to get away from it all? Can you live without your computer for a few minutes?

Michael: Hell no, certainly not my iPhone! I’m pretty attached and logged in all of the time. It’s a seamless part of my life. I have a couple of kids, and I can put it away for them because that’s a different kind of focus, but my nearly three-year-old son can unlock an iPhone. Mine has games on it just for him. Digital is in his life too, and is going to be more so than any of us.

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ihaveanidea: I realize that this is a silly question, seeing how technology is changing and evolving at a breakneck speed, but where do you see yourself in, say, ten years?

Michael: It’s funny. The Harvard Business School wrote a case study on us that was published in February of this year. The in-depth research for it was done six months before that. Reading that case study today makes me laugh. The core fundamentals haven’t changed, but it’s describing a company that’s very different than we are now.

I can’t say where technology will be, but I do like some of the ways it’s trending. That digital and real world split is getting fuzzier and fuzzier. Augmented reality is the new shiny toy that everybody wants to play with, but it represents something much deeper, with people are bringing their digital lives wherever they go in their mobile devices, augmented reality is actually starting to cause that blur. Pretty soon, saying something like “I’m going to sit at a computer and go on the internet” is going be as archaic as “I’m going into a room and turning on the electricity.” It’s going to be so natural that you don’t even think about it.

Where do I see myself? A little fatter, a little greyer.

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Interview by:

brettcreditpic Michael Lebowitz

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

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