Everything that can be digital, will be

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Whereas California’s pedigree in high-tech engineering produced a concentration of ambitious dot com companies, New York, the spiritual home of advertising, spawned creative agencies.  The fortune-tellers of Silicon Valley promised gold. The hustlers of Silicon Alley sold spades. Two of those hustlers were childhood friends Craig Kanarick and Jeff Dachis, the founders of Razorfish.

Over the past 18 years, Razorfish has become one of the world’s most successful digital agencies. It achieved this status largely due to the creative flair, business nous and charisma of its founders but an animated blue dot also played its part.

Razorfish was created to find ‘solutions to hard problems’, with the maxim ‘everything that can be digital, will be’. Early projects included websites for Time Warner, America Online, Charles Schwab and Sony. But Dachis and Kanarick didn’t want to just make websites. They wanted to transform businesses for the digital age. Interviewed on 60 Minutes in 1995, they said they weren’t interested in creating an ecommerce store for Barnes & Noble, they wanted to work with publishers to allow students to download books directly to their PDA’s.

Alongside their commercial work, they launched one of the first online art galleries, The Blue Dot. Created ‘for our souls’, The Blue Dot was a showcase for emerging artists but it was also a reaction against the commercialisation of the web. Featuring early work by artists such as Ryan McGinness, Spencer Tunick, Danny Clinch and Jill Greenberg, it notoriously included such delights as ‘The Society for the Recapture of Virginity‘ and ‘Dick for a Day‘. The Blue Dot was also the first animated web page (if you don’t count Netscape).

In March ’95 Kanarick was working into the early hours when he saw that Netscape Navigator had released its first update. Navigator 1.1 included a raft of new features including tables, SSL protocol and server-push functionality, which allowed data to be streamed for the first time. Netscape envisaged this would be used for dynamic data such as stock quotes but it also allowed multiple image files to be requested (1995 was pre-animated GIFs, they wouldn’t be supported until the release of Navigator 2.0 in March the following year). Kanarick downloaded the update but there was a bug in the code. A few hours later, he’d fixed it and animated The Blue Dot logo. The next day, The Blue Dot was one of only two places on the web you could see an animation, the other being the Netscape site. The Blue Dot had global attention.

Kanarick and Jeff Dachis describe the following years as the most fun, growing from 30 to 600 employees and steering the company to floatation in 1999 for almost $50 million. But perhaps their greatest achievement is seeing an industry develop in their image. Razorfish’s open plan spaces, exposed brick walls, cheap desks, expensive chairs, desk massages, indoor scooters, studio dog and people who worked more for the company atmosphere than their salary was a cultural blueprint they exported globally. Although investing in a nightclub and naming cocktails after yourself was optional.

The founders moved on in 2001 but Razorfish lives on. Now owned by Publicis Groupe, it is one of the largest digital agencies in the world. Not bad for a couple of hustlers and an animated logo.

The Blue Dot is in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

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