January 2003… as part of my daily cool sites addiction, I find the new site (http://archive.group94.com/g94_2003/) for a company called group94.
I get that instant adrenaline hit by finding something so cool and my reaction, as ever, is to send an email to them, inviting them to submit to FWA.
As always, I wait with anticipation… will they submit? I hope so, the site is so cool and must be represented on FWA. January 10, 2003 at 22.12 GMT, the submission form lands in my inbox. The circle is almost complete, just need to schedule this to go live on site.
February 4th 2003, the email is sent and includes my personal comments:
“Certainly an instant impact site with a super slick, fresh and clean interface. The content management of your site and your client's work is of the highest order and shows your forward thinking and intentions for the future of the web. The team at group94 show immense talent, as can be seen through your fine portfolio and the superb display of same. This is a very fresh site with many innovations and will appeal to a wide range of surfers.
Overall, we were very impressed with the progressive look and feel of your site and it's a pleasure to add group94.com to our winners' list.”
Later that day, Pascal Leroy, Founder and Creative Director of group94, responds…
“Honestly you made our day. When we subscribed, we never thought of winning this award...
And most of all we would like to thank you for the really wonderful comment you wrote in this email. Felt really good. So thank you, on behalf of the whole team here at group94.
We indeed noticed a severe increase of visitors since this morning (I cannot believe we would get 4 or 5 hits per minute by direct access...).”
Pascal, you remember this day?
Pascal: "It’s like the very first girl I ever kissed. Will never forget her either :)"
This would be the start of a long professional friendship and one that would eventually see us meet in person (as many will know, I am not well known for getting away from the FWA desk) in 2010.
For a number of years, group94 were one of the most prolific winners of FWA awards. In fact, so many that some people sent us messages…
MJ, June 2005: “I also enjoy some of Group94's work, however their design style is a "one trick pony". You must have a real hard-on for these guys, or you must work them? Try showing more diverse work other than Group94 or some damn' automobile Website.”
PB, July 2005: “Do you own stock in group94? Get off their dick.”
MI, April 2008: “Everyone in the design community was under the impression that Group94 was your main investor, did they pull out?”
Some may wonder why would I include the above negative comments. The reality is that over the years we have received hundreds of similar emails, questioning our ethics and favouritism towards various agencies.
The truth is that myself and FWA prides itself on absolute ethics, impeccable ones at that and there has never been a time when we have awarded any project based on anything but the quality of work. Not once and not even the time someone offered us money for an award!
FWA’s ethos has and always will be… if it’s good enough it wins.
With group94 cranking out amazing work, FWA duly followed with many awards.
As many will know, and also understand, FWA was completely unfunded up until it started to take advertising and submission fees in 2006. Up until that time, we relied on help and sponsorships from agencies to realise our ideas.
Back in 2002, at a time of incredible web design portals (resident members) including the likes of: Archinect; Australian INFront; BD4D; Computer Love; Design is Kinky; Half Project; Kaliber 10000; Linkdup; Moluv; Netdiver; Newstoday; Pixelsurgeon; Styleboost; Surfstation; Three.Oh; and many more, I started a project called Well Vetted, with the idea being that once per month each portal would send in their favourite link for the month to be published in a new Well Vetted list. Here’s an example from January 2005 that I managed to find on the Wayback Machine: https://web.archive.org/web/20030407235514id_/http:/www.wellvetted.com/
As you will see, the simple site was nothing special and a chance email to Pascal got a conversation going about helping us make a new and improved site. Something I learnt very quickly about Pascal is that he is the master of logic and that he also loves the buzz of an exciting new project.
We exchanged a number of emails and group94 agreed to take on the new Well Vetted website project. At the time, Pascal managed to get Ingo J Ramin to create an image that would look like someone was tearing open the screen so you could see the old Well Vetted site but also get a teaser of the new site. People loved it. You can see the preview site here http://www.thefwa.com/wvv2/index.htm
Over the years I have exchanged thousands of emails with Pascal. In fact, I am gutted that I don’t have more of the original ones to share with you due to hard disk failure but I can say that our emails are always filled with laughs and… random images. You do that too? Okay, we’re not just the crazy old guys then.
I say crazy old guys because we have over 90+ years between us. We often laugh and joke about retiring on a beach somewhere and setting up some weird business selling snow globes.
In fact, we have exchanged so many emails over the years that we even talk in acronyms, with many emails being signed off something along the lines of HAGWE-OTBp-DYTAWGT? With these acronyms often so cryptic that it might take a day or two for the eureka moment. We’re always talking about the BC and it’s now a main section on the FWA website.
This FWA Heroes’ series is very important to me as it gives me the chance to recognise the people who have really made a big difference to FWA.
I’ve been involved with the internet since 1997 and very quickly with internet awards, judging for many before establishing FWA in 2000. In the 14 years of running FWA I have exchanged emails with a lot of people, in fact with people from thousands of agencies and companies. There’s a good chance you’re reading this now as someone who I’ve exchanged at least one email with.
However, there are not many… a handful, that I email fairly regularly or even talk to, or even, less still, see face to face.
In 2009, having seen group94 make countless amazing sites for photographers, I approached Pascal about realising FWA Photo, the one photo per day showcase that has since seen many million visitors. It is a project that we still co-edit and one we both still have a great passion for.
In September 2009 after energy sapping months of acquisition talks with another company, it was time to take FWA to another level and that had to mean a brand new website. It was also a time to jump out of the “work for free” scenario and become a customer.
The question was, who would be the right agency to make the new FWA website.
For me, there was only one, it was group94. Having worked with Pascal and his team for many years, it was obvious to me that they gave everything to a project and that they were so in-depth and logical that I knew the end result would only be amazing.
It’s actually worth mentioning that over the years, we have had many offers to build new websites for FWA, for free, by various agencies. All of those emails are hugely appreciated. However, what most don’t realise is that the FWA website, framework, database etc is absolutely huge. As Pascal often says, it’s a monster.
Having had v2 of the FWA website built by the amazing guys from Dual (formerly CrashShop), back in 2005, I was aware that the sponsored/free route was becoming less of a practical option.
I approached Pascal and he agreed… in fact, he didn’t have the casting vote, the email actually read: “FWA3 > Tamara sais yes”.
On March 1st 2010, after hundreds of emails and conversations, we pushed the new site live, bang on schedule. On that first day, we immediately crashed the server and had hours of server issues as we totally underestimated the interest the new site would have.
In fact, the stats for the first day of launch were:
44,902 unique users
493,730 page views
In April 2010, just a month after our launch, the iPad was launched and gave us three headaches… big ones… migraines in fact!
So, FWA v2 was all about thumbnails, a site in fact with 120x75 images, that was essentially it. FWA v3… let’s go big with images and everything else for that matter as I felt the industry was getting bigger and bigger, with massive monitors etc. Bad mistake on my part as the industry was just about to take a massive change in direction… mobile.
We have since invested a lot of time to make the FWA site more of a current design, working on devices, in HTML etc. Rest assured we are always working on improvements.
In September 2010 we launched FWA Mobile, the mobile showcase for apps, mobile projects etc. Alison (my wife) and myself travelled to Gent in Belgium to launch the project live with Pascal and his team at the group94 offices. Pascal collected us from the train station and gave us a quick tour, including his amazing house, we also found out he was an amazing cook (and now fully qualified chef).
We then went on to meet the team at g94 HQ, who were all wearing FWA t-shirts!, and later to enjoy a great evening with Belgian beer and a lovely meal. Pascal and his team were incredibly hospitable… an amazing bunch! The next day we would launch the new mobile showcase.
Pascal gave me his chair and computer to hit the button and launch the new mobile site and to announce things via our newsletter and social channels.
Then, we sat and watched to see people’s replies. It was lunchtime and everyone was ready for group94’s traditional weekly ritual called Friesdays. However, we couldn’t go, not just yet. Why? Because we couldn’t leave without seeing that someone had complained about the new site.
3 minutes later, we were good to go after someone tweeted “meh” about the new launch. We all laughed and smiled and set off for the walk into Gent city centre for the traditional fries lunch followed by delicious ice cream. I still remember very fondly that day.
Since 2010, Pascal and I have exchanged many more emails, thousands. When I look back through them I realise they are pretty much always about FWA and it is this type of thing that has made me realise that Pascal has been an incredible driving force in FWA’s history. He has a passion for FWA as if it was his own.
If ever I have an idea for a new feature for FWA, I will usually send it to Pascal first. If Pascal thinks an idea is good, it usually is, if he thinks it is bad… yes, he tells me and he is always right! If Pascal thinks an idea is bad, the idea finishes right there.
Even though FWA is purely a client of group94, it is way more than that. A level of mutual respect and admiration, especially between myself and Pascal, has helped drive FWA to where it is today. Without that friendship and professional working partnership, I know that FWA would not be where it is today.
This Hero article seems to be more about FWA than it does Pascal. I know that if I had written an article 100% about Pascal he would have not approved of it. However, I feel this article as it is, gives a good history and a small behind the scenes of one of the driving forces you most likely never knew about.