During the last 13 years, Mr. O'Connell's agency has been an active player in the market created by that piece of computer equipment. General Electric's GEnie online service became Modem Media's first significant client in 1988. And in 1994, he negotiated ground-breaking online ad buys for Coors Brewing Co.'s Zima brand and AT&T Corp.
Mr. O'Connell, now 38, was already envisioning the future at a time when even his company's name was a leap of faith. "You certainly didn't get a modem with your PC [back then]," recalls the chairman-CEO of Modem Media.
Since 1987, the Web shop has evolved through a merger that created Modem Media-Poppe Tyson, then a public stock sale and, last month, a name change back to simply Modem Media. True North Communications controls 82% of the agency's voting stock.
Modem Media has retained General Electric Co. as a client for 12 years -- a remarkable achievement in this industry -- and has added other major customers, such as 3M Corp., Citibank, Intel Corp., Delta Air Lines, E*Trade, IBM Corp., Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Unilever.
Mr. O'Connell, a 1983 graduate of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., says he's a one-time ski bum who happened upon the Internet in 1985 and has had two epiphanies in his professional life. One was seeing online communications for the first time in the mid-1980s, via a 300-baud modem and 40-character screen. "I intuitively felt the future," he recalls.
The second was seeing the World Wide Web through the Mosaic browser in 1994 and realizing that model represented "everything that was wrong with online," he says. Closed proprietary networks and no system integration, he explains, meant business opportunities would be stymied. "I said, `This is all about plugging in,' " he recalls.
From the start, Mr. O'Connell saw that digital interactive communication would change the way people communicate; more recently, it's changed to reflect how companies communicate with customers.
Now, when ads boast that the Net can improve those relationships, Mr. O'Connell sees a message he's been touting for more than a decade. It's called "me-business," a phrase he coined to reflect how successful e-businesses will develop systems to drive services to customers, not just pull customers to their sites.
"More than any communications medium, [the Internet's] success is really driven by the customer," Mr. O'Connell says. This will become a hot topic as online consumers get bombarded with more and more clutter, he warns. Consumers will limit their online relationships to sites that provide real value and the resources they need. "Successful companies have figured out that it's not content that's king; it's still the customer who's king."
Thirteen years after the debut of Modem Media, Mr. O'Connell says he's reluctant to change his agency's name.
"Your name is your heritage, and you live it," Mr. O'Connell says, admitting his company's name may grow even more outdated with time. "One day, my boy Henry is going to say to me, `Geez, Dad, what's a modem?' "