Under the Bridge: The Story of Digital Dumbo

It's hard to believe that there's nobody out there
It's hard to believe that I'm all alone
At least I have her love, the city, she loves me

- Anthony Kiedis, Red Hot Chili Peppers


I took some time to sit down with Digital Dumbo co-founder Andrew Zarick (AZ) of The Jar Group and Digital Dumbo co-chair Kaitlin Villanova (KV) of Carrot Creative for a conversation about the origins, myth, and growing legend of Digital Dumbo. This interview took place at reBar in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. For those not aware, DUMBO stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. The name came into use in 1978 due to the cities "Artist in Residence" program ballooning to the point where most artists shared loft space with manufacturers. At some point "scenesters" and "yuppies" invaded the area and in 1978 the community decided that, if it were to die, at least it should have the funeral rights. Thus a naming committee consisting of Selby Beebe, Crane Davis, Monte Davis and John Donovan was appointed. Down Under The Manhattan Bridge Overpass was chosen in a landslide for its anti-marketing slant. Go figure, right? So, on to the interview.

I want to get the genesis, where was this idea conceptualized for Digital Dumbo? Was it a flash of brilliance? Was it something that was bubbling for years, months, weeks?

AZ: I don't think it was really a flash of brilliance per-say but we knew the community was ready for it. There were many tech/digital startups based in DUMBO and no one had attempted to organize everyone. There were small internal meet-ups, blogger meet-ups. We just saw the need to hold an event to bring the whole community together. We only contacted about ten key companies that we knew we could kind of piggyback on to grow the base for digital dumbo. First event 25 people in a small room and it has all been a word of mouth spread event, mainly through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, friends of friends, friends of agencies, friends of startups. It's still growing, we aren't to where we want to be, not that we know where we want to go yet but it has been a fun ride.

Seeing how you are one of the stewards of the ship, what is a rough guess of where you want to take it?

AZ: Honestly when it started we never thought it would be this big this soon so given how many people want to be involved in the event and especially Kaitlin stepping up we have had conversations about turning this into a nonprofit and giving back to the community not just necessarily this community but even the digital community as a whole. We are still planning how we want to go about that process, we need to get the infrastructure in place to have that happen. We just recently acquired DigitalDumbo.com so we're gonna launch that soon hopefully (DigitalDumbo.com is launched as of press time).

KV: I think looking back since I kind of got involved in Digital Dumbo about 8 months (June 2009) ago we were at Digital Dumbo number five at that point and we just finished number thirteen, I have seen exponential growth in the event. It started with the ultimate goal of networking and connecting and bringing the digital talent that happens to be in the DUMBO neighborhood and cultivating everyone's interests and giving them a chance to have a drink and catch up. Really just to bring a community element to it, it's getting more towards becoming a family. When you get there you know who's going to be there and you know which agencies are going to be there you know what they're working on, and you want to help them any way you can. So i think that's really where the value of Digital Dumbo comes in, it gives you a chance to kind of hone in on the talent that already exists in the DUMBO neighborhood. DUMBO is such an artistic area as it is so its really cool to talk to the digital community and say hey here's the monthly event and we can all hang out together.

AZ: Right, and one thing that wasn't necessarily built in from the beginning was that we never actually showcased a company or an individual so I think Digital Dumbo two or three, two I think actually we invited someone in to showcase some of their motion graphic work. So from that there was this one guy, Tim Nolan, is doing this month's (February 2010) event. So he was kind of the pioneer for showcasing his work but we never wanted that to be the central focus of the event we think it's important to showcase talent at least one person one company each event but we are more geared towards the networking first and the importance of showcasing talent second. Exchanging ideas and cultivating business is kind of an afterthought.

KV: I don't know if you're familiar with the format of the event but like Andrew said it's about a 15 minute presentation by the sponsor which give them a chance to showcase what they are working on at the moment or just introduce their business to the DUMBO community. Often times it has been technology solutions or creative shops other agencies, new agencies that are new to the area. So, its been a great learning experience to know who our neighbors are.

Some could say that this is kind of a town hall format, not necessarily a town hall but more of a welcoming committee so to speak or is that just an element of digital dumbo. one thing I wanted to touch on was that, Digital Dumbo, the area is kind of the antithesis of Madison Avenue. So my question now is do you see yourselves as the sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, or even a disgruntled spouse maybe even? Like what kind of relationship do you see you have with them?

KV: I would see it as the younger, I would hate to even say it, more hip more laid back people who are passionate about what they do and aren't driven by the monetary/corporate aspect of it all.

AZ: Honestly, I'm 25 and I'm gonna admit it we are kind of like the new wave I'm not really familiar with, you know, that scene. I would be lying if I said I was, but most people like to kind of play it up as a rivalry but I don't really see it like that. It just so happens that the new companies that are pioneering the new wave of advertising, social media, creative motions graphics, there are so many practices that based in dumbo and they kind of pinned them that way. The dialogue is open to where we can learn from each other.

KV: I think that that's the real point right there, we don't have any contention with Madison Avenue and like Andrew just said, we are of the new generation and i mean I'm 26 and I'm not necessarily familiar with the statistic or Madison Avenue as you refer to it. its more like when i think about the larger agencies that we partnered with when I worked for Carrot Creative, I learned from them as much as they learned from me. I think it's just a valued connection. I mean as more of Manhattan spillovers start attending the event we encourage some of the larger agencies from the Madison Avenue "group" to join us also. If anything there is more to learn on both sides.

Digital being the focus of everything in this new generation with online web series and online shows and things of that nature kind of seem to be replacing broadcast T.V. We have shows like Mad Men, Trust Me (Rest In Peace) that try to tell the story of advertising.
If you can imagine a (digital) show (about DUMBO) what would that look like?

AZ: The funny things is there was a press release a couple months ago about the filming of a pilot for MTV about an ad agency called HUGE that was based in DUMBO about its' inner workings. So, that could be interesting and definitely put the spotlight on DUMBO and having DUMBO referenced as the birthing place of HUGE. As for what it would look like, well I guess it would depend on what companies you're in.

KV: I think in DUMBO there's a lot of originality in each agency, some are large and some are small. There's not a lot of consistency as to the workplace while some may have a Ping-Pong table and some may have Guitar Hero on the wall. So, I think visually there aren't a lot of comparisons what it would look like. It's just more of a flexible, creative style of things. If there were to be a T.V. show I don't see it being as rigid as you know, Sterling Cooper or some of the more straightforward shows of that type.

Seeing how you both are 20 something and you know Millennial seems to be a big target for this digital dumbo network movement, Miami Ad School "stuck a flag" here in DUMBO community, so I wanted to know what kind of impact will they have in the community? Do you think they will want to come to digital shops in dumbo?

AZ: I hope so. We welcome all different types of companies and innovations. The tangibility of these difference agencies is amass here in the DUMBO community. It is to be hoped that when we launch our website it will have resources for students alike to inform them about what is here and the opportunities that are available to them they may or may not conventionally know about.

KV: The whole point of the Digital Dumbo is to cultivate community around an industry for people that are in or on there way to the area.

AZ: I know there are a lot of colleges around this area that are having there advertising classes taught by professionals in the industry. For Digital Dumbo we would like to have the chance to bring some of our members from the more modern part of the industry in to teach some new age designing and advertising ideas.

So as far as just moving forward with digital dumbo I presume the events will still be taking place and hopefully the core leadership will expand. One element I do wanna touch on is the concept of inclusion and diversity in advertising and Madison Avenue has been struggling to deal with it. What do you think about diversity in dumbo? How do you think dumbo is attracting even the residents of New York?

AZ: I think being in Brooklyn in general helps tremendously I believe they have a very diverse set of residents. I believe most agencies out here are receptive to people of different backgrounds. I would like to think that there is no animosity.

KV: I think DUMBO in itself is just a really unique neighborhood. I learned just recently that they named this place DUMBO to kinda turn away the Madison Avenue (crowd) but also to set up DUMBO as a really diverse culture and to ensure its success. Its an artistic community more than anything and I think that its a supportive community to where everybody is coming from.

Thank you to Andrew and Kaitlin for taking the time out to share information about this social movement that is fueling the counter culture of this small neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. For more information on Digital Dumbo and their activities visit DigitalDumbo.com