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Digital Mad Man: Modem Media Founder G.M. O'Connell

  |  April 16, 2012   |  Comments

O'Connell and fellow Modem founders were the "preppies of Fairfield County."

Read the first of this series here.

gm-o-connell1992Back in 1987, long before the Internet swept onto the scene, G.M. O'Connell and his partners Douglas Ahlers and Bob Allen* started an interactive marketing agency in Westport, CT. In their khaki pants and pressed shirts, they were the "preppies of Fairfield County" and their agency Modem Media crafted CD-ROMs, interactive telephone ads, and PC-based multimedia ads for General Electric and others. G.M., the 25-year-old CEO (shown left in this 1992 photo, with Allen and Ahlers center and right), was utterly convinced that agencies of Madison Avenue were dinosaurs.

With the advent of the World Wide Web five years later, the well-established little agency was a magnet for blue-chip clients that needed banner ads, websites and more. Modem's revenues skyrocketed from $7 million in 1994 to $135 million in 2000, thanks to the likes of Coors, AT&T, Delta Airlines, Intel, Citibank, and Philips. In 1999 the agency went public, selling 2.6 million shares for $13 to $15 a share. A few years later O'Connell retired from his CEO post - at age 42.

gm-o-connell-2008Since then his agency has gone through various sales and mergers and is now Publicis Modem. O'Connell, now 50, has been enjoying life in Argentina for several years, where he co-founded Tango Modem, a digital production shop, in 2009. He and his family returned to the East Coast a few months ago.

ClickZ: You were early believers in the concept of interactive marketing. What did it feel like to see the Web for the first time in '93?

O'Connell: "It was an epiphany. It was a magic moment. It fixed everything that we thought was wrong with online media. At the time the online services CompuServe and Prodigy were private networks that you had to pay by the hour to use. The content was walled, no one could publish. The big debate was if people would want interactive TV or interactive computers. AOL was going bankrupt. But the Web fixed all that was wrong. There were no guards in charge of it. It was open and it was social right from the start.

I first saw the Web on the just released Mosaic browser after a forgettable meeting in Mountain View, Calif. In a few hours we browsed practically everything there was to see. Then I got on a plane, went straight to my office and told our staff of 25 that this is what we've been waiting for. From then on, all of our work would be for the Web. I thought it was the internal combustion engine of the next century.

ClickZ: Were your clients more skeptical?

O'Connell: Their reactions were mixed, I guess. We did a website and one of the first banner ads for Coors' Zima [a sweet alcoholic beverage]. Later, Coors CMO Bill Weintraub told me they wouldn't spend any more money with us because the Internet would not be important in the future; he thought it was like the CB radio of the 1990s.

Another time, back in 1995, I used someone else's badge to sneak into a PC Forum conference in Arizona to talk to Dick Martin, AT&T's EVP of brand management. He was annoyed and I got thrown out, but our agency still won AT&T's agency of record account in a review. After the win, Dick told me, "If you ever pull a stunt like that again I'll fire you." But I knew I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

ClickZ: Describe life at your agency during the boom. How many dogs were at the office?

O'Connell: No dogs at our office. We weren't SoHo. We were kind of the exception, more serious and mature than shops like Organic and Razorfish. No shorts - but no suits either. Our people were young; many took pay cuts to work for us. They wore T-shirts and worked the hours they wanted, just so the work got done. We worked hard and played hard, and yes, we drank a lot, mostly Coors Light at the Black Duck in Westport.

Our clients reflected our more conservative reputation – Delta, Citibank, IBM. We knew how to interact with MBAs.

Actually, we felt a big difference from the other online ad agencies. They worked with a lot of dotcom clients, and seemed to drink the Kool-Aid.

ClickZ: How crazy was the dotcom boom?

O'Connell: I remember looking at a Forbes or Fortune issue on dotcom CEOs and saying, "Wow, I personally know a half dozen billionaires." There were so many over-the-top moments of extravagance by dotcom companies and startups that seemed misguided and gauche to us. Fortunately we weren't one of those companies.

But I can tell you that everything happened fast. In 1999 we flew commercial during our IPO road show, in 2000 we flew private during an ill-fated secondary road show. In 2001, there were no road shows.

ClickZ: Who inspired you during the early 1990s?

O'Connell: They weren't people that I knew, but gifted people that could see the future - that got it - before everyone else. William Gibson, the science fiction writer, understood what the Internet would become before we ever saw it. His 1988 book "Mona Lisa Overdrive," was a favorite. Also George Gilder, the author and intellectual, envisioned how computer tech would affect big media. I loved his 1990 book "Life After TV."

Their ideas made me push to see multimedia come through the narrow pipes via the Web. In 1996 I tried to get video sharing of the Olympics for our client AT&T. But we couldn't do it, not enough bandwidth. It's really exciting for me to see it finally happening now.

*This article has been updated. An earlier version misidentified Bob Allen.


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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.

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