Inside Firstborn with Dan LaCivita and a Few Drinks

By Matt Van Hoven 

Over lunch last Friday, we asked Firstborn SVP Executive Director Dan LaCivita about running a small shop in a big market during an even bigger recession, what the hell is happening with those Freedom + Partners guys, and his ambiguous title. “I don’t even know what it means” he joked, sipping bourbon between bites of fried chicken and waffles.

Direct to Client, Bitch
As digital shops go, Firstborn is medium-sized. For the first seven years they were in operation (of 11 to date), FB worked directly with clients. Then they hopped on with agencies like Tribal DDB. Working with agencies and directly with clients brings balance to the business, says LaCivita. And when the industry is hurting, balance is a good thing.


The digital riddle hasn’t yet been solved &#151 will it save advertising, or will it supplement it? We don’t have that answer. But FB was recently offered an RFP “for a big name client,” says LaCivita. He admits that although they didn’t win the business, they were up against the likes of R/GA, Razorfish, IMC(squared), Digitas, AKQA and a few other big fish. Being pitted against those big names is a good thing for the shop, he said.

“Just being included in that list was cool,” he said, noting, “you know, maybe we were just the bargain option. I don’t know, but we were there and that felt good.”

And why wouldn’t a small, low-overhead shop look enticing to recession-special-hunting clients? The days of four account directors on an account are over, at least for now, LaCivita noted. His agency avoids assigning traditional “account director” roles to begin with, unless an account requires one (a rarity). Instead FB’s producers manage that role &#151 which LaCivita says cuts down on fuzzy communication.

Not Just “Digital”
The shop recently completed their first TV spot too, for a client that we’re not supposed to tell you about even though it’s on their Web site. *Cough* hint *cough*.

Surprisingly, LaCivita isn’t outwardly concerned about FB being known as a full-service agency. The shop has an 11-year history of creating ideas and producing them; digital changes too much to give his agency a label.

We asked him about Freedom + Partners, Mark Ferdman’s project (whose 3D Web site launched today). LaCivita was tight-lipped when we prodded about the more than obvious feud that’s brewing between FB and Freedom. Mark and cousin Mike Ferdman (now CEO) co-founded FB, but Mark departed to do his own thing, and eventually some of FB’s staff went with him.

And ever since there’s been a pissing match between the two shops. We won’t rehash it here, save to mention a post on Freedom EP Craig Elimeliah’s blog, iProblog.

You can read Elimeliah’s recent interview of Mark (his boss, which he neglects to mention anywhere in the post) here. According to a few tipsters, if you read between the lines of this interview, Ferdman takes too much credit for FB’s success (which, as the cofounder he’s somewhat entitled to do). We asked LaCivita about this interview, to which he responded, “Well, we’re the (OMMA) creative agency of the year. He can’t take credit for that.”

Those Big Spaceship People

Another competitor of FB’s is a bit more friendly. You may have heard of Big Spaceship &#151 the shop is run by Mike Lebowitz, and last year the two agencies competed in a very official contest, pitting against one another in Ping Pong, basketball, etc. Click here to see some of the basketball game. Firstborn won, by the way.

There’s a slideshow at the top of the page with pics from the day. LaCivita is the guy in the hat, with a beard and glasses.

We had a good day, meeting these guys. We’ve been inside other agencies before, like R/GA for example, but this trip was the most laid back yet. The shop is “always hiring,” says LaCivita, though he didn’t name any open positions &#151 but that’s more than most agencies are saying these days.

More: “Fristborn Sinks BigSpaceship in First Ever Contest of Champions