Big Spaceship Kicking Ass Something Something

By Matt Van Hoven 

You might mispronounce Michael Lebowitz’s name. Before I go on, you need to know it’s Leb-oh-wits, not Leeb-o-wits. Keep that in mind the next time you’re around the CEO and Founder of what AdWeek calls one of “five up-and-coming interactive agencies.”

He studied film at VasserVassar, came to New York and did some things. But in 2000, at a really bad time to start a company he launched Big Spaceship.

Each year since it’s its inception, the digital creative company has seen growth. Today, it pays the rent for 45 people, who in turn have developed award winning work that continues to bring in new biz, even during an economic downturn. Makes sense, considering it started during one. Like being immune to every strain of the flu, BS ain’t infected..

Strategy, production, design, development are some of the keywords Lebowitz used to describe what his company does. His job is to contextualize, to facilitate communication &#151 and does so by participating in nearly every project. But, he says, without micromanaging his “superstars.”

A big realization in defining his business practice, said Lebowitz, was seeing terrible work (by bigger agencies) and finding incredibly brilliant people inside them. The bigger the company, he said, the harder it is to consistently take on work that keeps everyone happy, and produce work that’s top quality. And variety, it seems, is one of his keys to success.

Never repeat yourself, says Lebowitz, referring both to the type of jobs taken on and their execution.

But in digital, where high volume production is where the money is, how does a 45-person shop grow? More after the jump.

“Growth is a side-effect, in my mind,” said Lebowitz during an interview at the NoHo Star (his choice, nice). He traveled into Manhattan from Brooklyn, where he lives and works, for the interview. Awesome, since scootering to the boroughs is, well, a less than exciting notion.

To keep things fresh, there always has to be work coming in. Where’s the money coming from for this guy? His constant creation of really fucking cool work. Check it out here.

Compelling work, he believes, breeds more opportunities. Basically, with no lack of projects, business has always been strong. More on that below.

We heard the same jive (but wise jive, mind you) from Anomaly’s Johnny Vulkan. Both companies are pioneering the act of not being an advertising agency. Not surprisingly, they both have flat structures where anyone can have the big idea, and execution is hive-mind-oriented.

Getting to this strategy, said Lebowitz, came from having no understanding of advertising at all prior to opening the shop.

“We don’t consider ourselves advertisers,” he said.

“There’s enough process to scaffold what we do. You can’t collaborate without some process &#151 the question is to what degree is it imposed.”

This modus operandi allows the shop to progress while remaining fluid, giving it a flexibility the deathstars (thanks SuperSpy, I love this term) couldn’t hope to achieve.

And progression also means not being anyone’s bitch. OK, that’s my way of looking at it. Lebowitz says they’re nobody’s DAOR, and in that way they’re untraditional.

For Big Spaceship, scale is the enemy of quality. They’re a S.W.A.T. team, he said. By offering employees varied projects, everyone gets to work with cool brands. They sweep in, fix a problem, and go about their day. Bad…ass.

“We’re not beholden to (the type of) longterm relationships that would cripple our ability to innovate. If you repeat yourself, your message is lost, the customer is in complete control now.”

That doesn’t work when your mantra is centered on collaboration.

As for someday becoming someone’s DAOR, “(We) would consider it based on the balance of production work to strategic planning and building &#151 it has to cohere with the type of company we are,” he said.

The culture of the shop is 80 percent strategic to 20 percent tactical one offs.

“If the balance if flipped we’re not the right choice,” he explained. “We don’t have the scale and it would ruin our culture. If talent is the ultimate commodity (which everybody has to recognize), really what every single agency in the world has is an empty room with computers in it. The real value is the talent. You need to organize yourself around the talent if you really believe that. In the media biz it’s different. Creativity…is ineffable, immeasurable.”

He quoted Ford on the conundrum of harnessing a creative blueprint.

“I know half of my money is wasted on advertising, but I don’t know which half.”

“Because of consumer control you have to try lots of things &#151 be nimble, focused on particular initiatives, rather than everything that needs to be accomplished.”

Big Spaceship gets it done without being “full service.”

“The trend of full service interactive doesn’t work.”

Why would anyone expect a digital agency, which is already niche by nature, to cover the entire digital field, especially when it’s changing so quickly. When that question is answered, he said, it will be too late. So they take on challenges, one at a time.

Upcoming work: In development with Sony Pics: work on Quantum of Solace, the new Bond flick…sweet! Corona with Cramer Kraselt. Corona beach dot com. Also, just about to launch interactive piece for In Plain Sight. Causal narrative game in the context of witness protections.

If you check out the portfolio, you’ll notice Big Spaceship’s clients are all…well really cool. Why, you ask? Here’s why:

“Growth is a side effect, not a goal. If you think about it that way, we don’t hire…we turn down a lot of opportunity &#151 more than 50 percent because things are curated carefully…Some potential clients are turned down if they’re not the right fit…Hire people, not roles…Good work leads to more work,” the list of tricks goes on.

A final note:

“The trade off for being cutting edge is not being able to do absolutely everything you want for a client,” said Lebowitz. “It’s exciting, but when you’re always out in front, you have to wait. But would you want to trade it for the middle point? No, but this idea provides a context to how things work off the island. ”

“People like participating in stories, and the best creative works tell epic tales.”

Look for Big Spaceship to be writing volumes.