Monday, February 16, 2009

First Things First

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.
I'm Mark Ferdman. I'm founder of Freedom + Partners, which used to be known as Freedom Interactive Design. Before that I was a co-founder of Firstborn. All in all, I've been running my own shop and producing interactive work in New York City for 12 years. It's hard to believe, time flies when having fun I guess.

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?
I've been labeled an 'artist' since I was a kid, probably because I can draw pretty well, in a quick sketchy cartoony way ... I'm fast and I can draw anything. I'd be a decent designer but I guess I'm an entrepreneur, too, and that side is more dominant. Growing up I was the go-to guy at school for posters, signs, etc., the "best" in art class, so it's a place I started building self-esteem and as far back as I can remember I've always been making stuff, comic books, drawings, t-shirts, whatever. When I was 14 or 15 my buddy got an Apple IIc, and that was my first entrée to digital production, desktop publishing, Quark Xpress. In my early twenties I was going to art school at night in Chicago and working as a print production guy for an ad agency. When I got there in 1992, they were literally doing key line paste-up to make their ads. I'll bet 80% of people reading this don't even know what that is, or what it looks like. T-Squares, exacto blades, you'd literally "send out" to a typesetter to get back galleys of type to cut up and paste onto vellum overlays. Thinking back it was both insane and remarkable how print stuff would get produced. At 22, I reinvented to 35-person agency's production process, moving all the art directors to desktop publishing where they could design AND produce camera-ready art. So in a sense, it started there, then around 1996 I discovered the Internet and since that day I've been addicted to making brand content for it.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
Luckily, our team doesn't need any motivation, everyone is self-motivated by nature. It's sort of a pre-requisite for working here because in ways we're non-structured in a traditional sense. more useful keeping our clients informed and motivated. I read all the well-known blogs, articles, etc. daily but mainly I rely on everyone else here to keep me up to speed. I'm the least technical person from a hands-on standpoint in our company. Everyone else helps me understand things conceptually as new stuff comes out. I'm very good at thinking of how to apply these things to our customers' businesses and marketing strategies. I'm also good at translating in layman's terms for them so they can learn too, which is what this industry needs far more than anything, education and experience, at traditional agencies and at the brand level, the CMOs and brand managers.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?
The ideal client understands and respects the medium as much as we do. The ideal project is The Bob Dylan Online Museum. I would spend a year or two with Bob and have total access to his personal artifacts and boxes in the attic. Vas Sloutchevsky would design and we would create something never been done before, an interactive multimedia biography that would take weeks and weeks to experience. Vas would like it better if it was John Lennon. I wouldn't object to that.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?
Man, this is so hard. First, you're dealing with people, personalities, and everyone has their own agenda, too, and you never know what you're gonna get, who is a sheep and who is a wolf. Unfortunately not everyone plays nice and transparent like we do. I think it's become harder and harder. In the old days, say 1998-2005ish, clients seemed to listen and trust more. Nowadays, a little bit of knowledge is making people sometimes literally dangerous. It's especially hard when we're working as a production shop for an agency, because we have even less control over both educating and setting expectations. We're getting better at it. It has a lot to do with learning how to say "no" and developing business relationships with the right types of people.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?

Recently, my personal favorite was the site we did about Walter Matthau ( I love biography and really got immersed in the content. Ask me another day and I'll have another answer, maybe the old Yigal-Azrouel site, or working with Madonna was obviously pretty cool but those are going back nearly a decade (damn!). Would You Like A Website? ( was a special project to me, too, it was self-promotional, we had a blast but also we fought each other tooth and nail every step of the way, everyone cared about it immensely, which is what it's all about. More recently, the work we did for USA Network on The Starter Wife ( and was satisfying, too. We owned the concept soup to nuts and our client was psyched, enthusiastic, and had our backs navigating bureaucracy the whole way. In the end, we were disappointed with some technology meltdowns beyond our control but overall it was a great project, really ambitious. We're working on something big for Pearl Jam right now and we were commenting a few days ago that so far it might be the best ... we're all way into it, the client has been awesome ... and it's f'ing Pearl Jam.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?
Too many. It's a blessing and a curse that I've been able to juggle up to 8-9 projects at a time. In the early days at Firstborn and up until the day I left, I pretty much managed every single project in the door. It's been the same way at Freedom. I've sacrificed a lot of personal time and weekends but as a small shop with no funding or backing, we've chosen to invest our money in design and production and leave most of the producing to me. In the early days of getting off the ground, same at Firstborn. Now we've got this dude, though, named Craig Elimeliah (blush), and some other help, and my life's a breeze as of late. We generally have 3-8 projects in house at a given time.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?
I think I have a dream production team, literally. I'm lucky. My career has been pretty weird. I founded Firstborn, and hired the original team -- Vas Sloutchevsky and I met first in Chicago and moved here at the same time to start the company, CTO Robert Forras, developers Shea Gonyo and Josh Ott -- and then I decided to leave for purely personal reasons after 5+ years, even though I loved those guys. We were a band. When I left I told them all I'd one day love to get together and play again. As time passed, I didn't think it was gonna happen really. However, after a year or so Shea and Josh came over and I was psyched, same with Matt Sundstrom, a creative director, maybe a year later. Through twists of fate and the passage of a lot of time, Vas and Robert reunited with us at the end of 2007. It's been unbelievable, for me a dream come true. We're just about hitting our stride right now and we're going to drop some projects in the coming weeks that I think will perk up a few eyebrows. In any event, I love our team. We're small and tight and we all get along with and know each other really well. We agree we'd rather maintain chemistry than grow for growth's sake, so we'll continue to go with the flow and see where we wind up by hiring people we think are super-talented and like-minded.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?

Ensure is a strong word. The best we can do is be transparent, know our stuff, and work extra hard. Ultimately I think it's everyone's own responsibility to protect their own interests. When you've got two talented and motivated partners or entities whose interests intertwine, you've got a mutual protection society going on. That's when the best work gets done. Clients, like employers, should worry about the interests of their agents. You know, "the love you take, equal to the love you make." I believe in that so I'm naturally looking out for the interests of my business colleagues.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?
The next phase is bringing point-of-purchase to most, if not all, brand experiences. See a product in a TV show? Buy it. Like Debra Messing's skirt? Buy it. Isn't this a cool digital ad for Doritos on a subway train? Buy some.

I don't think electronic commerce has even scratched the surface. Brick and mortar got killed this past holiday season, but Amazon rocked. And of course Amazon still looks like a disaster, a giant flea market. Which is where we'd like to come in.

I hope brands will start worrying more about form, what I call online retail merchandising. Instead of the typical e-commerce experience, I hope brands will become as interested in the design, experience, and how things look and move aspects of their online commerce platforms as they are when it comes to designing their presence in stores.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.

Anticipate all possible scenarios and be prepared for any of them.

1 comment:

  1. Mark, you rock, as a professional and as a friend. Working with you as the client, you and your team at Freedom listen and understand objectives, go off and do your insanely creative stuff and bring back the "thing" we wanted but better than we thought we'd have! This ability has fostered a trust in your creative vision that I believe has given us superior results in our projects together.