.

I'll never forget the day we received a call from Madonna's manager, Caresse Henry. Madonna had seen our work and wanted to hire us for a project in conjunction with her Music album. We all thought it was a joke. There we were, just a few people in a little office in Hell's Kitchen and Madonna's "people" were asking to do business with us.

Your name, plus your original "web name/handle"

Michael Ferdman 

Your first web encounter, year etc.

1996, a year before the opening of Firstborn, marks my first actual use of 'The Web'. 

Computers hadn't come into play during my years at the University of Wisconsin, and even if they had, I likely would have brushed them aside to make room for sports and socializing and the occasional dive into an actual text book.

In the years since I had moved to New York from my native Chicago, I had worked in the garment industry buying and selling piece goods.  I was essentially running my own business within a business and learned a great deal about what I wanted the next phase of my professional life to look like. 

I knew I wanted to run my own show, I knew I wanted to be part of creating a high end deliverable, and I knew I wanted to put my skills to work.

I also knew my cousin was looking to go off on his own.   He had been working for a company that was doing a lot of early stage multimedia work for large corporations - we're talking interactive sales tools, brochures, marketing kits, that sort of thing.

We had always dreamed about running a business together and combining our skill sets - his on the creative/design side, and mine on the business and management side.   We decided to start a company that would offer 'multimedia' solutions, but on a smaller scale and focused on high quality aesthetic. 

It was time for me to do some research. And so I bought my first computer -a Comtrade - a piece of machinery  I was in no way equipped to handle, far more intended for designers and developers than for someone like myself. 

I began to explore 'The Web' for the very first time to educate myself on the kind of industry I was about to dive into.  


What our readers might recognize you most for, when you first hit the web.

 

Firstborn officially launched in the summer of 1997 in a small space in the Film Center in Hell's Kitchen. We had secured a few good projects leveraging my contacts in the fashion industry and were gaining traction. 

Israeli-born fashion designer Yigal Azrouel contacted us and wanted Firstborn to design a website to promote his brand.  We created a site that was beautiful and innovative for its time, rich in flash and motion graphics.  The work garnered serious attention not only from the fashion world but also from the mainstream.

 

Your digital journey since. 

I'll never forget the day we received a call from Madonna's manager, Caresse Henry.  Madonna had seen our work and wanted to hire us for a project in conjunction with her Music album.  We all thought it was a joke.  There we were, just a few people in a little office in Hell's Kitchen and Madonna's "people" were asking to do business with us. 

We jumped head first into that  gig and things really took off from there...

 

Fast forward to April 2002, a major turning point for both my and Firstborn's digital journey.  That was the year my cousin and I decided to part ways. We had made it through 2001 unscathed and were even thriving as a company but we realized we had very different ideas of where we wanted take Firstborn. 

It was a dark but ultimately pivotal time for me, not only as a business owner but as a human being. With a dash of fear and an enormous amount of excitement I took over Firstborn and set my sites on the next phase of the company's evolution.

 

We headed into 2003 with drama behind us and things moving forward. That same year my daughter Jordan was born - my own firstborn.  My life was changed forever and all the bullshit of the prior year was put in perspective.

One of my goals was to get home to bathe Jordan every night, even though most nights that meant going back to the office afterward.  It was an investment of time that has paid off in the closeness we share. I learned a powerful lesson from that period: I could work hard and remain competitive in my career and still find time to focus on the things that truly matter.  

 

More things began to crystallize for me. In order to run and grow the company the way I envisioned, it would need to be first and foremost about our talent. 

Obviously in a service business the people are paramount and it was up to us to find the right people, empower them, entrust them and make them accountable not only to me but to one another. 

The FWA was in fact instrumental to our growth. We were looking to hire a certain caliber of talent and The FWA was a site where we could view top quality work all in one place and see who was behind it.  Similarly, the attention FWA gave our work opened the door to attracting top design and development talent to our doors from all corners of the globe. 

 

That year we made crucial hires like Zeh Fernando and Mathieu Badimon. 

2003 also brought the arrival of Dan LaCivita - and of course, his tongue ring. Then an eager young flash developer looking to 'make cool shit' he is now Firstborn's President.  I have never met anyone quite like Dan - someone with so much drive, dedication and purpose. Someone so respected by those around him. 

 

Soon after Dan came young developer/designer, Joonyong Park arriving straight from Korea to join Firstborn. Today he is Firstborn's Chief Creative Officer and one of the most awe-inspiring people that has ever set foot in our company. 

He is also one of the most humble people ever to set foot in the advertising industry and probably more worthy of an ego than all of us put together.  Joon is the imagination behind our company. 

 

We had the right group of about 40-45 people and our quality of work was better than ever.   We also began a global internship program drawing people from all over the world from Rochester to Taiwan, still in effect today. 

Firstborn quickly became a place where people were determined never to let each other down.  Our expertise in design, development and new technology innovation completely exploded.   Our aesthetic was undeniable.  Our culture was our own.  And our timing was perfect.

 

Come 2006 I hit another personal milestone - the birth of my son Cooper.   I was about  9 years in the business. I had come a long way. Through trial and error I had learned what type of person could truly prosper inside of Firstborn. 

We had grown a team with a tremendous sense of accountability and respect for one another.  But I still had a lot more to learn.  It is one thing to build something for almost a decade, and another thing to keep building with that same consistency for the next decade.  We needed to keep that Firstborn fire.

 

From 2006 to 2008 digital was really heating up all over the ad industry. Major agencies started needing us more and more and we found our groove becoming a go-to hired gun. 

This became our bread and butter for the next few years, and ultimately provided us the opportunity to learn on their dime how to navigate the nuances of direct to brand relationships while creating top quality work.  It was an invaluable education that would well-equip us down the line. 

Some of our best work came out of these years:  Nokia "Music Almighty" with Wieden+Kennedy;  Corona "Photo Slice" with Atmosphere BBDO;  National Grid "Power of Action" with Mullen; Microsoft  "Zune Journey" with T.A.G.;  Northwest Mutual "Let Your Worries Go" with Downtown Partners; Lowe's "Welcome Back Spring" with Tribal DDB....and the list goes on.

 

In 2008 we started talking internally about getting back to our roots a bit and exploring more direct to brand relationships like those we had in earlier years with Reebok, Malibu Rum, and Armani Exchange . 

We made a strategic decision to keep going with our agency business and at the same time to judiciously go after brand business.   This gut decision was instrumental in keeping us afloat with bad times looming for our industry. Timing is so essential with everything - and we were fortunate enough to have a healthy balance of agency and direct work just as the impact of the late 2008 crisis hit. 

Companies big and small got clobbered. It was a fragile time for our industry but we made it through in good shape and were able to protect our most important asset, our people. Nobody was let go during those trying times and in fact, we actually grew. 

 

As big of a year as 2002 was, 2009 was equally monumental.  Our reputation as a creative force in digital had been established.  In that year we won a big digital agency of record pitch for Pepsi's Sobe and were hired to do a significant amount of work for Aflac. 

Then a call came from Bob Rupczynski at Wrigley, who had the idea to put EVB, Big Spaceship and us together for a first-of-its kind shared digital partnership. Things had changed. 

We shifted to 75%/25% brand to agency work.  All of a sudden we went from being referenced as Firstborn, 'the digital production shop' to Firstborn 'the digital advertising agency', whatever the hell that meant (I've always found those sort of qualifiers somewhat sophomoric).  

 

Our revenues grew significantly and with that came some necessary changes.  We had to shift our staff to fit these new relationships.  And we did it in the same organic, thoughtful and non reactive way in which we had always done things or else it would have never worked. 

 

We have a few mantras at Firstborn.  One, stripped from "A League of Their Own", There's No Crying at Firstborn. We push forward and make do.  Another, Open Kimono.  We are all about transparency.

And finally: - WE DON'T WANT LOVE HANDLES.  We keep it slim and trim.  We don't look to trim the fat, we look to avoid it at all costs.

 

Enter 2010, and with it more growth and continued interest from private equity and holding companies.  It was always flattering to be a target - I had gotten calls like these back as early as 2006.

I didn't build Firstborn to sell it, but now we were in a different place - we were about  60 people and well into double digits in revenues.  Dan and Joon had not only become my partners but were a blueprint for how people could grow within our company. 

Always willing to listen, I started taking a few select meetings with interested parties - but no matter what number or deal was thrown at me, nothing seemed in line with our people or our vision.  

 

Just as I had tabled all conversations, one person remained persistent in asking me to take one more meeting - Bryan Weiner, CEO of Dentsu-owned 360i.  He was pressing me to sit down with Tim Andree, then CEO of Dentsu Network. Dentsu had bought 360i in January of that year and I watched with great respect how that relationship was benefiting Bryan's company.

Tim and I hit it off immediately.  Maybe it was the fact that we were both from the Midwest, or both lived and loved sports - but something was different.  I felt a true connection and knew that Tim understood Firstborn and wanted us for who we were, not for what he envisioned changing us into.  

Then, in what can only be described as a completely surreal next couple of months, we signed the papers to join the Dentsu Network on the last day of January, 2011.

 

These last two years have been unbelievable for Firstborn.  Dentsu has honored Tim's word in allowing us to run our business, protect our culture and grow Firstborn in the slow and steady way that got us to this point. 

They are there to help us in many different ways and we are proud to be a piece of a growing family that is hard set on doing things right. 

Our business has doubled in revenue adding only 25 people  to our team, staying true to our goal of keeping Firstborn under 100 employees.  Trim.


We continue to work on fabulous brands like L'Oreal, EA, Pepsi, Google, Mountain Dew, Aflac, EA and the list goes on. 

 

This unbelievable journey has been just that...


What are You Up to Now


I am continuing to learn and grow.  That will never stop. 

 

Anyone who knows me knows one thing for certain. In the many sports I play,  I may not be the best player but I am one of the best team players. 

It's about taking pride in putting people in the right place while finding ways for everyone to shine.  

Whether it's on the courts playing pickup, hitting the ice each night with my league during hockey season, or walking through the doors at Firstborn - there is nothing that makes me prouder than seeing my team win and knowing I played a role in its success.   


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Michael Ferdman... then
Michael Ferdman... then

Michael Ferdman... now
Michael Ferdman... now



























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