Digital Mad Man: Jonathan Nelson, Organic

The Mad Men of the 1960s had their martinis, Lucky Strike cigarettes and expensive suits. They were kings of an era when Madison Avenue advertising was a glamorous, creative business to aspire to.

The Digital Mad Men, and Women, of the 1990s reigned over another revolutionary era for the ad business—the advent of the Internet.  The invention of online marketing via the Net was also creative, exciting and glamorous–at least from the outside.  Instead of custom-tailored suits, the young digital players had high-end computers, they dressed like teenagers and labored in messy offices filled with toys. They were driven, smart and fascinating to the outside world. As the decade wore on, leaders of industry came knocking at their doors and money flowed like water.

Then we all know what happened – things went bust.

But from around 1992-1999, it was the era of a lifetime, a transformative cluster of years that reshaped communications and our lives. Here at ClickZ, in the spirit of Don Draper, we wanted to revisit the incredible times of the Digital Mad Men–and Women. And the best way to do it is to listen to the people who were there.

jonathan-nelsonFresh out of a small Pennsylvania college, Jonathan Nelson was all about the music. It led him to the nightclub and online world of San Francisco, where in 1993 he co-founded online ad agency Organic on two card tables in his apartment. He, his brother Matthew and their partners planned to build websites. One of his first clients was – naturally – an indie record label.

Then in late 1994, Wired magazine launched its ad-supported website HotWired in the same building south of Market Street where Organic had moved its offices. Nelson, who was 27, stepped in to teach the HotWired ad sales crew the nuts and bolts of the Web.

Many of HotWired’s first advertisers were clients of ad shop Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, so when the clients needed websites, Messner turned to Organic. And the gold rush began. Nelson remembers his agency growing one percent a day for two years.

Six years later, in early 2000, Organic went public, closing at more than $40 a share its first day and raising more than $200 million. CEO Nelson was 33.

But within a year Organic’s shares had fallen into penny stock range. In 2003 Omnicom bought Organic and Nelson stayed on as chairman and digital adviser to Omnicom CEO John Wren. Three years ago Nelson, 44, was promoted to his present post as CEO of digital for Omnicom.

ClickZ: Put us in the scene during those brief boom years. What did they feel like?

Nelson: It was like a rocket ride. Those five years were a crazy blur; I call them the lost years. We had stayed up for several weeks to launch Hotwired, creating 8 banner ads. Afterwards the entire Organic staff – of two people – quit because they were so exhausted. And that’s when the business really took off.

When Netscape went public [in mid-1995] the money got wild. We knew the tech stuff but not the client services, so while before we were drowning because we were broke, after the Netscape IPO we were drowning because we were overwhelmed.

At the time I had no sense of the impact of the Web, we were just trying to survive. When you are in the eye of the hurricane you don’t see the rest of the storm. Ironically, since I was only in my 20s I thought this was what the working world was like, working non-stop. I got to travel around the world for speaking gigs. I got to work with Dan Wieden at Wieden + Kennedy on the Nike brand. I’d say ’97 and ’98 were the golden time, before the craziness got bad. I remember driving down 3rd St in San Francisco in my yellow Honda CRX and thinking what a cool time I was having.

ClickZ: If we were sent back in time to the Organic office then, what would we find?

Nelson: Well, it wasn’t glamorous. It was the land of broken toys. People brought sleeping bags and duffle bags of clothes to the office and we slept under our desks. Somebody would bring in food so we didn’t have to leave. Others brought their dogs to hang around.

We made our desks with table legs we mail ordered from Ikea attached to doors we got at a lumberyard. The vibe and ethos of the place was all about functionality. Shorts, sandals, jeans and t-shirts were the norm, but you had to wear a clean button-down shirt to meet with clients – unless you were an engineer. In fact, people would leave deodorant on the desks of engineers.

In some ways it was fun to be that single-minded, to be running on adrenalin all the time. This was our world. I remember my car insurance got cancelled five times because I couldn’t get around to paying the premiums.

Members of the German Parliament visited us to see us in action. And Michael Milken [the junk bond financier who served prison time in ’92 to ’93] would regularly hang out with us.

ClickZ: How did skeptics react?

Nelson: It was tough to make people understand why online marketing was important, because it was so obvious to me. It was hard to avoid sounding like a cosmic, crazy California fool.

To show clients and agencies what our agency could do, I used to lug around a luggage cart containing my computer equipment, including a 13-inch Mac monitor, to meetings, and it was hell hauling that stuff around in the summer in New York.

One time, thanks to my music connections, I got a meeting with a senior exec in the BMG Building. He was this German guy and he took one look at me and my computer and barked, “Get out.” He was wondering what this badly dressed, unsophisticated kid was doing in his office and I was thinking, “Don’t you see? The Web could change your business. You could offer sound samples, comments about your bands, tour dates.” I left. Then the Internet got on the cover of Time magazine in 1994 and the demand for websites took off.

ClickZ: How much money were clients spending?

Nelson: It was so cheap for them, but seemed like a lot of money to us. Club Med spent about $10,000 for their site. That covered our office rent for the year. Volvo, which was the first car brand on the Web, spent $20,000. Levi’s first site cost a lot: $100,000. To put it all into perspective, rent for our first office (1,500 square feet) was $825, desks cost $120 each and we paid about $5,000 for a computer. Our first color Apple laptop practically broke the bank.

ClickZ: How did traditional agencies relate to you?

Nelson: They treated us like we were from another planet. They only saw the tech side of what we did and thought we were the AV Club of the ’90s. Of course, we had to be somewhat technical because we had to build the platform to put the online ads on. But it’s true that we didn’t know the agency lingo or how an ad agency worked.

They also took all the credit for our work. And then they tried to buy us. For instance, around 1995 Messner execs told us they had to either buy us or fire us.

ClickZ: Who inspired you most when you were starting out?

Nelson: Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab [a visionary in investigating the human-computer interface.] He gave a speech in 1991 that seemed to speak to me directly.

ClickZ: Looking back, what did the pioneering Digital Mad Men of the 1990s have in common?

Nelson: We were Generation X, the slackers. We were a bunch of losers that listened to Nirvana instead of Def Leppard. It’s funny; people thought we weren’t doing anything, but in reality we were doing stuff that would change the world.

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