The newborn Bay Area Interactive Group (BIG) hosted a kickoff event reminiscent of the go-go days of the dot-com boom. More than 500 people lined up under whirling spotlights at Mezzanine, a cavernous nightspot south of Market, a sure sign that happy days, or at least happier ones, are here again.
"We've waited three years for a party," explained BIG co-founder Scot McLernon, CBS Marketwatch EVP of sales and marketing.
The line at the bar was six deep with champagne-quaffing employees of Weather.com, Hitwise and dozens of other online marketers. Trays of chocolate-dipped strawberries gradually gave way to a buffet dinner a la 1998: pyramids of sushi rolls, chafing dishes of tortellini and chicken skewers, bowls of artichoke dip and platters of fresh fruit. As Peter Gabriel's "Big" reminded the crowd "I'm on my way, I'm making it," BIG president John Durham announced over a booming sound system, "The rumors of the death of San Francisco's interactive community are greatly exaggerated." The crowd cheered with a combination of enthusiasm and relief.
Trading banter from platforms on either side of the club's dance floor, Durham and McLernon explained how BIG came to be, then launched a promotional video the organization will use to lure future members. After that, the new board of directors was introduced one by one: Lynn Ingham of Ad Age, Brian Monahan of Universal McCann, Jon Raj of Visa, Dough Schirle of PointRoll, Glen Sheehan of AKQA, Susan Bratton of Maven Networks and Gordy Abel of EuroRSC, led by chairman Rich LeFurgy of Archer Advisors.
Finally, Larry Kramer, CEO and chairman of CBS Marketwatch, mounted the stage to deliver a brief keynote address, more pep rally than policy. Reminding the crowd of his 30 years in San Francisco media, he told them he'd seen shakeouts in news, in advertising and in interactive marketing -- and that the companies that survived always did so because they had "great, creative people." And with that, Durham exhorted the room to "have a BIG time." A DJ began spinning atmospheric music, whereupon lines reformed at the bar and food stations as networking resumed.
San Francisco's digital media community has had trade associations in the past -- most notably the Society for Internet Advancement SF, which imploded when funds for online advertising disappeared three years ago. Although there will obviously be some commonalities, BIG is not a successor to any of those past groups but an entirely new organization, McLernon pointed out. It will be building its resources and reputation from scratch, with quarterly social/networking "reach" events and smaller monthly "frequency" meetings focusing on specific marketing topics. The next "reach" event is scheduled for December 16.
BIG also plans a significant online presence at www.sfbig.com, including an online forum where members can discuss trends and technology with their peers.
Judging from the Mezzanine crowd, the local interactive industry has been eager for an opportunity to rebuild its sense of cooperation and community after three years of layoffs, closings and takeovers.
BIG's first event attracted some big-name signature sponsors --Yahoo!, Google, MSN, 24/7 Real Media, Fathom Online and ValueClick -- as well as hospitality sponsors Advertising.com, Ask Jeeves, the New York Times, Atlas DMT and Reuters. Future events are fully sponsored through 2006. In addition, the group has already sold 50 corporate memberships covering a dozen members each.
The enthusiastic response to BIG's emergence is a sign of interactive media's recovering health in the Bay Area, said Allyce Bess, who covers the industry as senior editor of the San Francisco Business Times.
More to the point, said member Kate Everett-Thorp, president of interactive advertising at AKQA, it proves that San Francisco is ready to snatch back its industry primacy. BIG is explicitly meant to be the West Coast counterpart to 212, New York's Interactive Advertising Club, Everett-Thorp said, adding, "We want to remind people that San Francisco is the interactive media capital of the world."
Interview with BIG president John Durham.
Bay Area Interactive Group Web site.