What’s a Dot-Gonner to Do?

Steve Sacks is examining Daniel Rozin’s “Trash Mirror,” a $70,000 “reactive sculpture” made up of a stained coffee-cup lid, a Marlboro cigarette pack, a crinkled Snapple label and some 500 other pieces of garbage. Via video input, motors and custom software, the patchwork of urban refuse is orchestrated to reflect whoever stands in front of the work.

“[Rozin] took something that was thousands of years old, the mosaic, and through technology he made it a contemporary art piece,” observes Sacks, owner of bitforms, a gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood that represents artists devoted to digital and digitally influenced art.

Sacks’ appreciation for the amalgamation of art and technology stems from his days at Digital Pulp, a New York Web development and advertising firm he co-founded in 1995. The 36-year-old entrepreneur, who steered the creative product for such clients as DoubleClick, Alta Vista and 1-800-Flowers during the high-flying dot-com days, resigned almost two years ago to spend more time with his family. “It was a very intense five years,” he recalls. “Five years felt like 10 years. I had a baby during that time. I bought a home during that time. Everything was such a blur.”

Like Sacks, many interactive creative directors have pursued alternative careers since the boom went bust. In Sacks’ case, it was by choice. But the recession and shrinking demand for interactive services have forced others to make a premature exit from what was once a lucrative field.

While some dot-commers are now plying their trade freelance, a number have abandoned their wired lives altogether: a former Wieden + Ken nedy interactive creative director has opened a guitar shop in Austin, Texas; a Modem Media cd has set up a smoothie stand in Kauai. Still, a good number of interactive cds have parlayed their digital experience into a new kind of media gig.

Sacks had been in the digital game since before the Web came along. In the early ’90s he started a small company called Spry com, which focused on traditional advertising as well as digital, which at the time meant creating marketing programs on floppy disc. With the advent of the Internet, he hooked up with Bruce Goodman, who had a Web development background, to launch Digital Pulp. In figuring out his next move, Sacks evaluated the pros and cons of the agency experience. “The best part was working with creative and technology folks, and coming up with a solution together,” he says. “What I didn’t like was the client control that thwarts the creative process.”

With the proceeds from selling his stake in Digital Pulp, he opened bitforms—”bit” being the unit of digital information and “forms” referring to the realization of creative possibilities across media. The gallery provides the creative and technological aspects of his previous job without the client restrictions. “It’s unlike advertising, where [the client] can come in and say, ‘It has to be blue.’ Here, if the client, or the collector, doesn’t like it, they won’t buy it,” he says.

About the time Sacks was mull ing his resignation from Digital Pulp, TBWA\Chiat\Day was using some unconventional tactics to re cruit Doug Jaeger. The 24-year-old associate creative director at J. Walter Thompson’s digital@jwt unit in New York was being blitzed with flattering e-mails from Carl Johnson, then president and CEO of TBWA\C\D in New York. Jaegar’s JWT team was responsible for De Beers’ online program allowing users to design their own engagement rings, the launch of Merrill Lynch’s online-trading product and Elizabeth Arden’s site.

Johnson eventually bought the URL dougjaeger.com as the trump card. (Since then, Jaegar has maintained the site as a sort of slide show covering the last few years of his life.) With great fanfare, Jaeger joined the New York shop as its first interactive creative director in May 2000. During the next two years, he oversaw digital projects for several clients, notably Absolut’s silver Lion-winning inaugural on line campaign, which allowed Web surfers to interact with the iconic bottle, and a Doctors Without Borders Internet effort.

Last July, newly installed agency president Shona Seifert restructured the creative department and reassigned the members of Jaeger’s inter active department to other Omnicom units. Jae ger was named one of six group creative directors. He says he’s happy to be part of the creative process from the get-go. “The reality of interactive is that typically you’re not the first part of the answer,” says Jaeger, now 27. “A large portion of the budget is used to develop TV advertising, and after that happens, people all of a sudden say, ‘Oh, what about interactive?’ “

Jaeger collaborates with gcd Johnny Vulken to generate ideas about how to reach consumers through channels other than TV or print for clients on limited budgets. The plan might call for a mix of direct marketing, interactive, public relations, design and events marketing. A nontraditional marketing plan for a new Masterfoods product is their first big project. Jaeger also worked on a recent party in Los Angeles celebrating the debut of “Absolut Stella,” a campaign centered around fashion designer Stella McCartney.

“We’re looking at the entire budget before it gets divided into different disciplines and determining the most effective ways of communicating with consumers,” explains Jae ger, a bandage on his right elbow evidence of a recent motorcycle accident. He says his interactive experience has taught him how to operate under budgetary constraints. “It’s helped me be very innovative on how you work with smaller budgets—how to cut corners but still deliver great creative.”

John Young, former chief creative officer at Tribal DDB Worldwide, says he learned the same thing during his digital days. “We had to be innovative because a lot of stuff didn’t exist and we had to do it on the cheap,” says Young, who led marketing initiatives for clients including McDonald’s, Sony, Compaq and Anheuser-Busch. He joined the Omni com shop when it opened, in October 1998, and left in early 2001, heading to Polynesia for two months to decompress. “Finally I had time off, after 15 years of sprinting,” he recalls.

“When the economy went south, I realized that there will probably never again be a more perfect time to take a midcareer break—to re group, catch my breath and prepare to jump back in with new purpose,” adds Young, 42.

He’s working on a book to be published in the next few months by The One Club, Mixed Messages: Ideas That Reach Beyond Media Boun daries. For the project, he asked such agency heavyweights as DDB Worldwide chairman Keith Rein hard, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s John Hegarty and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ Jeff Goodby to weigh in on the topic of integrated creativity and give examples of daring multimedia campaigns. (Hegarty “believes that … as long as TV drives pop culture, that is where he would put most of his weight,” Young says, while Reinhard “is very even-handed and has a broad vision of where consumers are spending their time.”)

Along the way, Young has been freelancing for agencies and with clients directly to develop inte grated marketing campaigns. He is currently working with Christopher Keefe, a former colleague from Modem Media/Poppe Tyson (where Young was chief creative officer before moving to Tribal), on an agency that would develop creative programs that “work across media the way people use media.”

At his new job, Brad Epstein strives to achieve the type of integrated environment discussed in Young’s book. Epstein, who has a background in direct marketing and traditional advertising, spent three years at Agency.com’s i-Traffic subsidiary as ecd. He left last January, and did some consulting until he took the ecd post at The Lord Group and its parent company, Spier New York, in mid-August.

“Here I get to oversee all the different clubs in the golf bag. You wouldn’t golf with only a five iron,” says Epstein, 41.

For Spier’s publishing clients, for instance, he thinks the Internet is an untapped tool. “You have a lot of people buying books online, but you don’t really have publishers testing this medium the way they should,” says Epstein, who oversees a 12-person creative depart ment. He is looking to attract employees from a range of disciplines, he says, to achieve a more inte grated marketing mix.

For the interactive creative directors who have reinvented themselves, some obstacles remain. Sacks, who is using his advertising background to market his gallery and its art, faces the challenge of selling high-ticket luxury items during a recession. “Sales are slower than expected,” he says. “Contemporary art typically takes time to be absorbed.”

And for Jaeger, he gets pigeonholed as the “interactive creative guy.” “I get put into this box sometimes,” he says. “I don’t only think of things on the Internet. It’s not like I say, ‘Sorry guys, I don’t watch television. I only read Web pages.’ “