Firstborn’s Dan LaCivita: Coming of Age With Dentsu, Sony

dan-lacivita2Like a teenage boy who shoots up a foot in the space of a year, New York digital agency Firstborn has enjoyed an exciting growth spurt since February 2011, when Tokyo-based Dentsu bought it.

Founded as a digital production house a dozen years ago, Firstborn has matured seemingly overnight into a full-service digital marketing agency. Its major blue-chip client has been PepsiCo, including the SoBe brand. Then Pepsi was joined by Sony, which in Oct. 2011 awarded the shop the corporate “make.believe” business in the U.S. and parts of Europe. Firstborn is now completing the first phase of the make.believe digital, print and social campaign, which will be unveiled in mid-February. Other top clients include Wrigley and Aflac.

Firstborn President Dan LaCivita talked to ClickZ about how the shop’s work is changing, what clients are asking for and why tinkering is always a good idea.

ClickZ: Tell us how you’ve grown.

Dan LaCivita: We’ve doubled our revenues from 2009 to 2011. Last year we went from 60 to 75 employees and we moved our offices to larger quarters, including a 1,100-foot studio. We have creative and production control of content, and we are growing our strategic strength.

Today, 100 percent of our business comes directly from clients. Back in 2008, only 30 percent came from clients with the rest coming from ad agencies. Though we still welcome agency projects.

CZ: How have the client demands changed in the last year or so?

DL: They are asking, ‘How does your digital expertise affect the rest of our marketing mix?’ Because our roots are in digital work, we are newcomers to print, video, TV and retail. We have a different approach to those media and clients want to know how an agency with a digital orientation sees them fitting together.

CZ: Your agency is known for crafting sophisticated user experiences. How are you incorporating social media into the experiences?

DL: I have two examples: Pepsi Pulse, which launched in October 2011 and the SoBe Facebook sampling campaign that started in January 2012.

In Pulse, we scrape the social sphere to collect and curate online conversations about the TV show “The X Factor.” We tally and reimage existing content from Twitter and Facebook to make it a visually interesting design [branded by Pepsi].

For SoBe, we are giving away 99 bottles of the newest flavor, Lifewater with Coconut Water, to people who like the brand’s Facebook page. If you shake the coconut tree on the page you might win a sample. If you lose, you can get another shake by sharing the contest with two Facebook friends. Within two weeks of launch the brand’s Facebook page added more than 50,000 fans [to about 300,000 total fans].

It shows that people are more apt to share online if they have some skin in the game, if they get something for it – whether it is a product sample, or more social cred.

CZ: What recent effort by your agency was most effective at reaching the target?

DL: It was probably the work for Wrigley. Its 5React gum was a sponsor of the Cochella Music Festival’s YouTube channel in April 2011. Our marketing pushed 7.8 million people to the live stream of the festival on YouTube – which was double the number from the year before. We did it with a branded microsite that used webcam object recognition and phone-to-app technology. Visitors to the microsite and to could push shout-outs to their Facebook friends during the live webcast.

CZ: What skills are you desperate to hire?

DL: We think big ideas can start from compelling techniques, so we want art directors and designers who understand how the technology works. Also, we want technologists who like to tinker around and experiment with things. We think that is how to foster innovation – if you take the long path to doing a project, you can discover new things along the way.

CZ: What lesson have you learned in this eventful year?

DL: I came to understand that in this field things are in flux whether you choose to change or not. But big changes don’t mean your company has to be uprooted, to fall apart. We are a different agency with new clients, new employees and new offices but as we grow, we try not to lose sight of the little things. I still have a hand in every email we write to clients. And everybody at the agency, including interns, can email me directly with a problem.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.