Firstborn Is No. 8 on Ad Age's Agency A-List

Digital 'Production Company' Earns the Title of Agency by Beating the Big Guys to Win Work From PepsiCo, Wrigley

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- Last year marked a coming of age for production shops, and no small, nimble independent threatened interactive agencies' hold on big brand digital business more than Firstborn in 2009.

Sam Hadley
CEO: Michael Ferdman
CLIENTS: Aflac, Wrigley, SoBe
With three direct-to-client wins from PepsiCo, Wrigley and Aflac, founder-CEO Michael Ferdman's New York-based digital "production company" shrugged off that distinction to unequivocally assume the "agency" mantle.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. As many small digital shops with production-oriented bases struggled, Firstborn managed a projected 13% bump in year-end revenue to $8.5 million for 2009, said Mr. Ferdman. The agency's ability to thrive during the recession relied on a measured evolution of its model, balancing new direct-client relationships with its established project business for agencies such as Team Detroit and Droga5.

In November, Firstborn, on a roster with Big Spaceship and Omnicom majority-owned EVB, dethroned giants Tribal DDB, Digitas and to lead digital on Wrigley brands such as Orbit, Lifesavers, Juicy Fruit, Skittles, Altoids and Starburst, and also produced the new web presence for Aflac. Aflac selected the shop as the insurance company's lead digital agency without a formal review.

While Aflac's then-mainline agency Kaplan Thaler Group had a hand in the company's new brand site, it was Firstborn's blend of creative chops with digital strategy that led the effort. (Aflac's ad account is now up for review and Kaplan Thaler -- the agency that introduced the brand's now-iconic duck more than 10 years ago -- is not defending.)

See work from Firstborn on Creativity.

Strategy and execution went from static content and stock photography to Flash, 3-D, custom images and "Why Aflac" educational vignettes. Firstborn also crafted the digital experience for the brand's most recent campaign,"You Don't Know Quack," for which Omnicom's Zimmerman handled spots, outdoor and billboards.

Founded in 1997, Firstborn has made its name in web design and technology and continues to attract talent to maintain that status. And it's that reputation -- what Aflac's new-media marketing manager Cosh Bryan calls "attention to detail that's borderline obsessive-compulsive" -- that attracted Aflac to Firstborn.

While singing Firstborn's creative praises, Mr. Bryan is also quick to acknowledge that the marketing site his brand was after required more than just creative muscle alone.

"We give the credit to Firstborn," said Mr. Bryan. "They delivered the end product, they provided the production, but they also provided a lot of strategy."

Another prime example of the agency's creative skill in 2009 is the Puma L.I.F.T. site, created with Droga 5, which melds 3-D modeling, motion graphics and 129 video sequences into an easy-to-navigate game that shows off the brand's lightweight athletic shoe.

Staying sharp
For PepsiCo, Firstborn rose above other digital boutiques, including Barbarian Group and Big Spaceship, to win the pitch for the SoBe business. The soft-drink maker dropped Omnicom Group's Arnell Group on the brand for a digital-and-PR-only strategy. Firstborn will be spearheading digital strategy, CRM tools, social-media planning and implementation and, most recently, the launch of, with Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick, which handles PR for the brand.

Even though Firstborn doubled revenue from work with direct clients like Aflac and Pepsi in 2009 to 60% vs. 40% of project work for agencies, Mr. Ferdman said that production slice won't disappear. Regardless of the increasing number of calls from marketers looking to work directly with Firstborn, Mr. Ferdman has put a cap on his agency's direct relationships with marketers, because more production-focused projects keep his talent sharp.

It produced the Ford Mustang 2010 car-customizer site for the automaker's agency collective, supplementing the car creator that's standard on most automakers' sites with one that boasts 360-degree views and social-media chat, sharing and voting. Two weeks after the site's launch, more than 60,000 cars had been customized and 25,000 cars uploaded to the user gallery, all before paid media kicked off to drive traffic. By November, the site had been used to customize 1 million Mustangs with 200,000 on show in the gallery.

"The only thing I have is my people," Mr. Ferdman said. "So I have to have them working on the stuff they want to work on, because having seven full-time 3-D motion people in-house is an enormous advantage for us. The M&M work led to a 30-second spot because the work naturally translated to video, and that area is a key part of our growth."

To better communicate at the CEO and CMO level, Firstborn has added copywriters, strategists and planners to its legion of developers, Flash and 3-D animators. This year, Firstborn increased headcount more than 20% to 51 across creative and strategy.

"There's a great barrier to entry if we want to lead more brands," said Mr. Ferdman. "We need to make certain kinds of hires: copywriters, planners, brand strategists. We've made them, and they've helped us immensely. We had never had a copywriter on staff, I don't know what we were doing without one."

"I think 2009 was crucial in so many ways but one thing that stands out to me is how it was the year that will set us up for the next five years," said the agency's No. 2, Senior VP Dan LaCivita.

Most Popular