Posted on September 23, 2011
A Tribute to the Child-Oriented Consumer Goods Company "New Media" Department Golden Era (2001 – 2006)
Note: This is a true story that depicts real events from the perspective of the author. Most real names of the people and the places involved have been changed or left out on purpose. Everyone involved will recognize the company and the events and might even have their own spin to add. We had a great ride and for those 5 years we certainly kicked some ass together.
Before the birth of 8bitrocket.com, 8bitsteve and I worked for a Global Child-Oriented Consumer Goods Company (GCOCGC for not so short). From 2001 until 2006, this job fulfilled almost every working and personal need and aspiration either of us had when it came to exercising our creative and technical abilities. In 2006 it all fell apart. This site (8bitrocket.com) site slowly rose from the ashes of what had once been a literal nirvana of creative energy, fun, and technical wizardry. It became the outlet we personally needed as our day jobs changed so drastically.
During our run at GCOCGC, we worked with some of the most talented people we will ever come in contact with and sadly the team slowly broke apart. While some of the best people stayed on with GCOCGC, most of the best left for larger corporations who valued the skills and knowledge that they acquired while working at GCOCGC.
Just recently I have started to work on some projects with some of the stars from that golden GCOCGC era and I felt it was time to pay tribute to one of the best internal interactive teams ever assembled (at least in my mind).
I worked for a large consumer goods company that targeted children for 14 years on the web development technical team. I wore many hats on this team but spent the bulk of my time as what I would call the Manager of Web Applications Development. During the “Golden Years (2001-2006)” this was a very hand-ons “lets get this sh*t done and kick some ass” style position. I loved every minute of it.
“New Media” was a term used to describe many Web and Internet departments in the mid-2000’s. It was used especially by older companies who both feared and relished what these new frontiers could offer them. I always considered it a little bit of a derisive term, but it was the name that our Web Team was given in 2001 and we kept it until 2006. During that time, the we worked for a large consumer goods company that targeted children as the main audience for its products. We’ll call this company as GCOCGC.
The GCOCGC New Media’ team amassed a world-wide audience of 100 Million monthly visitors (MAU if you will) to sites that offered mostly education and entertainment for children aged 3-12. There was a long period within these years when GCOCGC was our CDN’s largest customer by far.
There certainly was a GCOCGC web team before January of 2001 and there was one after July of 2006, but those teams were a shadow of the “Golden Years” Web team. The pre-2001 team did some awesome work (for example, first two customizable child-focused products sold via the internet) . The later, post-Golden Era team also did some amazing things (MMO and Game Portal web sites) all in the midst of turmoil that would take an entire book to describe.
This, though is the my personal story of working with the absolute best internal web development team ever assembled in a single location – The GCOCGC team (2001- 2006). When the team started in 2001, the ghttpoal was to get 60 Million visitors for the entire year (5 Million a month). After 6 months we were at 20 million a month and growing. At its peak, some 100 million visitors a month were entertained and even buying some adult targeted collectible style products from the sites. Many attempts were made to further monetize this traffic through ad banners and more direct selling, but the rules (and rightfully so) of Coppa and Caru made this impossible for a mostly under 13 audience.
What we did create was a set of branded web sites that provided games and entertainment for kids 3-12. But we did more than that: We created cross-site scavenger hunts, re-skinnable game engines, multiplayer games, leader boards, points systems, badges, single-sign-on, and more all before it became vogue to do so. The creative teams put a huge emphasis on what kids wanted to do and play patterns that actually worked on-line rather than just copying what other sites were doing. In fact, there really were very few (if any) other sites doing these things yet, so we had to innovate as a team. What we had in those golden years can only be described (by me at least) like the freedom that the early Atari people had to just make great content and get it out to the masses…and it WORKED! (For the most part, as we will see in a second).
Now, let’s go back to those pre-golden years
I started at GCOCGC in June of 1997 with a bare knowledge of HTML and ActiveServer Pages, but a deep knowledge of SQL, Unix C and Perl. The web team was a single unit consisting of a 4 programmers 3 designers, a producer, a manager, and an IT director. As was the case in those days, the web team was started by the IT department because (if you can believe it) most IT departments in the 1990’s had large, experienced development teams with very few, if any, contractors and consultants. The term “Business Analyst” was a few years from vogue, but there certainly were a number of both tech and business experienced people that helped facilitate the development process. They were called Technical Producers or Systems Analysts in that time
The first web sites we created were rudimentary, but as we started to combine SQLServer and Flash into the mix, we eventually were creating some very cool web experiences. We created some of the first Java and Shockwave games targeted at kids and one of the very first on-demand e-commerce customizible product systems well before the turn of the 2000. In the late 1990’s, after a series of acquisitions (some failed, some not), the web team (now more than 20 people) found themselves out of the IT department, reporting to a newly acquired media company. This the acquisition turned out to be a disaster and GCOCGC as a whole went through some very tough times. The web team was dissolved with the developers sent back to the not-welcoming arms of the IT department and the “creative team “merged back into the two main warring brand groups, reporting to new, and not particularly web-savvy management. The web creative team was sent off to a new building in early 2001 where they merged with they remnants of an existing CD-ROM team. The tech dev team was left to sit and wait in limbo for a few months (early 2001) to see how their fate would be decided as the entire IT team went through what would be the beginning of a set of yearly re-organizations).
These technical developers were sent back to the IT department that was in a new state of flux. The entire 1990’s old regime that valued internal knowledge and development was quickly being replaced with the new breed of “process and governance” nerds to replace the “code cowboys” and “computer nerds” from before. The “Jack Welch” style of management made fun of so well in Dilbert, Office Space and now on “30 Rock” was the tune of the day. These new IT leaders didn’t (or wouldn’t) understand that the web developers were more product engineers than IT drones and for the next 11 years I managed the web development team trying to bridge the gap between this new process-centered IT world and the creative world necessary to produce great web work.
The Golden years begin
Luckily, even though the new IT regime didn’t understand our web developers, they had bigger fish to fry. They sent the whole team out to support, sit with, and work with the creative team that had been split off and moved to a new building months before. The web developers moved from the “ GCOCGC HQ” building, now filled with corporate IT process drones, lawyers, marketing, and other non-creative staff to an off-site building just for the web team.
On the tech side, one good thing that happened at this time was that Steve (8bitsteve, my twin brother) was able to move from an internal IT web development position to work on the New Media Web Team with me. The old regime in IT had considered Steve a wizard and a superstar. He was able to do things with an HTML page and a web connector to the AS400 that made the client server people drool. Steve had spent his first 4 years at GCOCGC creating intranet sites on his own for internal IT and teaching the huddled masses new skillz in Java and HTML. When the old IT regime was unceremoniously forced out, Steve’s skills were no longer appreciated (“who needs developers in IT?”, and “isn’t this web thing a fad?”). My team took him on as the web systems architect. He couldn’t report to me, so he became his own sort of tech department.
We realized that this was not a nod to how important the entire web team was, but in actuality we were the red-headed (apologizes to all of my beautiful red-headed friends, especially you, Gretchen and my son Justin) step children, thrown out to fend for ourselves as we were not a profit center. No matter, we kicked some ass anyway. In spite of all the turmoil, the January 2001 – June of 2006 the GCOCGC New Media Web Team flourished. The team grew to over 100 people (producers, creative, developers, etc). We created 100’s of games and sites for all GCOCGC brands, racking up so many visits a month that the original Web Trends software could not keep up with the demand and nearly set fire to limited set of internal servers created to track web traffic. All of this put the GCOCGC sites and near top rankings on all of the Media Metrics kids charts for 5 years straight. The web team moved to new digs a couple times, but were always separate from the overly business-centric GCOCGC World Wide HQ Tower Building.
From 2001 – 2006 the GCOCGC Media Web Team was left virtually alone, and in that time it was one of the most successful in-house web development / publishing teams targeting kids. The motive for the team was to create fun for kids and NOT try to sell them anything. We were able to amass a monthly child audience that rivaled the largest TV conglomerates spread across a series of kid-focused web sites. The media charts always had multiple GCOCGC sites in the top 10. The only real competition GCOCGC had was from properties with larger Movie and TV Outlets (Disney and Nick for example). By focusing on fun and education for kids and not direct selling of any product (although the games and activities we created were many times micro versions of toys or games for sale on store shelves), we established a very tight-knit relationship with a huge audience of kids and parents who were not being served by many other sites at the time.
In early 2006, things started to change. The team (mangement, engineering, design, production, creative, analytics, QA. media, and more) had all spent the better part of the last 5 years housed together working independently of the larger corporate powers, winning awards and creating a massive audience for GCOCGC related web content. Aside from the relatively small profits being made from the some collectors clubs, and specialty items there was no actual cash being generated on these web sites. The GCOCGC team of roughly 100 people was competing with no real budget on even footing with giant media companies that employed entire buildings worth of staff. Even this type of success relative to the tiny budgets being spent was not enough to convince the GCOCGC “powers that be” that the New Media team was a success in their eyes.
We did all of this with the help of an incredible, internal, hosting team that kept our relatively few .net servers firing 24/7 365 to serve up this massive amount of content. We brought Akamai in to help with caching and Webtrends to help prove that we were a success. We were “killing it” as a later company I worked for would call it for “5 years”. The only problem was that success on the web means cost. Cost translates into real $$ that have to be spent and justifying those $$ was not always an easy task.
By the middle of 2006 though, the corportate part of GCOCGC (and maybe rightly so) decided that they were spending A LOT of money on giving out free entertainment to kids but were not seeing any tangible profit in return. Many arguments were made about the the worth of interacting with brands rather than simply watching commercials, but in truth, we had no way of backing up those ideas with tangible e-commerce data. We could only show formulas based on perceived time spend with a brand and how those positive effects could affect the overall sales and perception of the products being sold.
Even the GCOCGC New Media team could see the writing on the wall and decided to attempt to create our own unique style of monetization. We brought in classic game designers with names such as Rob Fulop, Bill Kunkel, and Chris Crawford to help teach the team the finer points of game design. Our idea was to create a single, internal game portal and monetize it with pre-roll, Eyeblaster, page interstitial, and page takeover ads. We were absolutely firing on all cylinders and really keeping the branded sites content constantly updated and fresh and moving toward what we hoped would be a HUGE kid-oriented game portal the likes of which had not yet been seen on the web (but would soon completely dominate web games for kids). The problem was, this was OUR idea, and the ideas of this relatively remote, not directly brand-related web team were not always the same as the ideas of the individual marketing departments. Our attempts to get anyone with power to give us the budget to create such a site fell on deaf and bickering ears as very few had any vision that these brands should be on the same site together, let alone sharing space on a games page together. No one would agree with selling ads, and most thought (and maybe correctly so) that we would be cannibalizing our own brands with ads for other children’s products). Internally, games and toys were talked about as product and brands are discussed in manners that no kid would ever understand. A free games portal that mixed hallowed brands together and possibly let Disney show an ad for Mulan was a complete affront to the tradition of GCOCGC. We tried to breach those boundaries and we paid dearly for it.
In those tough economic times and the tough times about to hit, is was decided that the New Media team was put under strict new management. The team WOULD focus on “monetization” of those 100 Million visitors. The monetization would NOT be our game portal strategy (although 3 years later it would be tried, and of course be 3 years too late), but the team would focus on e-commerce and MMO games. The New Media team was ripped apart and thrown back to to corporate structure. Many of the best and brightest producers and strategy leaders left for greener pastures while the engineering teams were thrown back into the IT department. The creative team was thrown onto a floor with the ad buying team and treated as if they were 2nd or 3rd class citizens.
Previously, not being a “profit center” had helped the GCOCGC New Media team turn out some amazing, creative work that was not always hampered by the “next new product” or what the marketing department felt would be the next new trend. It had allowed the team to flex their creative muscles and even have fun doing it. But, there was some envy from other company departments, and especially the IT department that saw our team as complete rogues that could not be controlled by their new “gates” and “processes”.
We were a creative and engineering team that was tasked with two opposing goals and it was beginning to tear us apart at the seams. The funding money was coming from the brands to ensure the each new product was given its share of web space and promotion, while the the creative minds behind that promotion (the New Media Team) were not directly controlled by the branded marketing departments. It wasn’t just the IT department that saw the engineers as rogues, but the marketing departments started to exert muscle on the creative teams and influence content decisions and creativity. The success of the team started to falter as the these creative decisions were beginning to be made by a committees that thought they knew the web because they had just completed their MBA with a bunch of classes that had “E-” proceeding the title.
The post golden era
To say things changed in late 2006 would be an understatement. That “not a profit center” tag came back to bite the GCOCGC New Media in the ass. The “Corporate Power” was sick of spending precious marketing dollars (no matter how minuscule) on the web team with no real financial gain being realized, and one which they thought had gone rogue. Even though more kids were visiting than ever and the numbers were through the roof on the media charts, decisions were made to break up the “rogues”. They didn’t care about page views or visits, or time spent. They didn’t want to or could not understand how these “new media” metrics, as overwhelmingly positive as they were, translated into the old world of plastic consumer goods, marketing, logistics, and manufacturing. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an answer that they wanted to hear. We must have explained and re-explained how the few million dollars (a drop in the bucket compared to television advertising spent during the same time frame) they spend on web was targeting marketing to active eyeballs. Now-a-days there a books written on the subject, but just a few short years ago, if it didn’t translate directly to a dollar figure there was no way to measure the impact. Remember, we were tasked with advertising the brands, not with making a profit of any kind. Our profit making ideas were “shooed” away, and in turn turmoil ensued.
I think as management teams changed inside GCOCGC, they wondered where this money to the “off-site”, “out of mind”, “rogue” web team, was going. Even though 100’s of reports and internal marketing messaging were prepared to explain the process and how it favorably compared to a television viewing audience, no one listened. During a process of upheaval from January 2006 – December of 2006, the web team was decimated. Many people left on their own, and more were laid off. What remained of the team was sent back to the “GCOCGC Corporate Tower” in June of 2006 and split between 3 separate floors, never to fully regain the synergy it once had. The new focus we were told was that we needed more e-somethings with MMO (+G, or W, or what ever) in the title and that we needed to sell every product on-line right away.
The Personal Part of the post Golden Era (2007 – 2010)
I had worked in the ever-changing world of brand marketing web development since 1997. Let’s just say that I have never been one for the “waterfall” style of project management imposed by most IT departments. In fact, I have an actual degree in IT, so while I fully understand the process, I have never been a huge fan of it for the relatively small projects we worked on. We made games, web sites, and other assorted small to medium-sized web applications for the ever changing needs of the branded web sites at GCOCGC. Unfortunately, the web development department was never a fully unified, autonomous unit (outside of IT) and this required both the need to be flexible (as marketing needs change sometimes almost hourly) and the need to report to the IT department on how we were spending our time. Change control and well defined requirements were strong points with the GCOCGC New Media web team in the early years (1997-2006), but in the later, frustrating, years all bets were off when it came to satisfying the needs of the brand marketing departments. I’m a pretty flexible dude when it comes to application changes, it got seriously out of hand before I left GCOCGC. The IT team had become a nightmare cross between the worst of both Office Space and Dilbert, and the branding buisness team controlling the web sites had grown very large, very fast and had out grown the relatively simple processes that governed application changed control. In essence the web developer team was stuck in two worlds, both just as crazy as the other. They reported to the “new world order” style IT management who had no idea what it took to create a fun, branded, web presence for a child oriented consumer goods company. On the other-hand, the day to day work was for a team of freshly minted MBA and web professionals, who while skilled in many areas, just did not have the same experience that the Golden Era management team possessed. The had not fought the battles. They had not experienced the history, so they were destined to repeat it at no fault of their own.
In 2007, my job was turned from what had been a completely engineering related technical manager and architecture position into what IT liked to call a “Business Analyst”. Basically over the next 4 years, the New Media team was re-branded many times, with profit being their main motive. The whole time, my IT job title stayed the same, but my IT tasks morphed from technical guru to sometimes highly paid desktop support engineer. As IT consolidated and outsourced the “skill” positions, the Business Analyst job started to take on many mundane tasks that a development engineer just can’t stand to do for very long.
In those final 4 years I worked with some amazing people and we had some strong leadership , but it just just not the same. The morale was low across most of the creative and technical departments and even though we had some nice successes, and valiant attempts were made to create another, single, unified team, the magic was just not there any more.
Creativity was still important, but profit was the main purpose for the group. In the final incarnation, before I left in 2010 web traffic less than 25% of what it once was during the golden years.
And that’s why it all had to end…
In late July 2010, I had to leave my GCOCGC corporate web development job that I had held for 14 years prior. I had stayed more than 4 years past the job’s expiration date, but was holding on in hopes that it would once again become the glory days of old.
I left a lot of friends there, but because of Facebook and Linked in, most of us have kept in contact. For the ones who have also left, especially for some of the Golden Era Folks, we have found ways to work together through our respective individual agencies. Maybe someday we will have that Golden Era Team back again. To those who are still there, have left, or were never part of any of these teams, I raise a glass to you in hope that you find our own Golden Era or possibly are even in the midst of one right now. For those who are still at GCOCGC, there is a seat at a large table at the Mongolian BBQ waiting for you whenever you want to meet me there for lunch.