It's been 13 years since the trendy online ad agency Razorfish held its infamous "belly dancer" party, but the Caligula-esque blowout that defined the insanity of the late 1990s dot-com era still haunts one man: Freelance writer Matthew Steinglass, who used his True/Slant blog recently to muse over how disclosing something on the Internet can, very suddenly, define you. Forever.
The incident Steinglass used as an example was a company party hosted by Razorfish in 1997. This is all Steinglass can remember about it:
At some point in what I believe must have been 1997, I was online chatting about the budding Silicon Alley scene [in New York] when someone mentioned a lavish party that had been hosted a few days before by the web-design outfit Razorfish. At the time, my roommate was dating a woman who worked at Razorfish, and she had told him something about the hiring of belly-dancers for said party that was in some fashion mildly scandalous. I literally cannot remember anymore what the issue was.Matthew, allow me: Razorfish had just received an investment from Omnicom (OMC), the advertising holding company. (Like everything web-based in the late 1990s, that investment was about to go bad.) After taking Omnicom's cash, Razorfish made what, in hindsight, was probably the unwise decision to redecorate its entire office and throw a party that would have made Hugh Heffner blush. The belly dancers were the least of it. Transvestites served 4,000 White Castle burgers to guests, according to Adweek...
... I have a feeling that the issue itself was so inoffensive that if I could recall it, the whole affair would seem ludicrous.
Within half an hour, my roommate's girlfriend was on the phone. Had I posted that information on Echo? Yes, I had. Did I realize that everyone at Razorfish had seen the post, and was asking who'd leaked that information? What the hell was I thinking?
Last week, Razorfish creative director Craig Kanarick was mulling over the aftermath of a company party thrown the week before in its New York SoHo loft. The bash, which featured belly dancers and transvestites serving White Castle burgers, provoked some new media colleagues to show their distaste in cyberspace. They posted messages in newsgroups bearing the subject 'Razorfish, live nude girls?' (which there weren't) and sniped that the 2,000-attendee gathering was for 'Trendy/Beautiful-People-In-Technology' (which it might have been).... and TechBastard:
The party in question was a $10,000 opening bash that [CEO Jeff] Dachis threw in May 1997, four months after the company moved into its new home. A line formed outside the building on Grand Street. For the first time in memory, people were turned away from a Silicon Alley event. Inside, Brazilian music blared and belly dancers jiggled, while 2,000 Krispy Kreme donuts and 4,000 White Castle burgers were served.The party did not help Razorfish's business:
Days later, partygoers told tales of strippers, excessive drinking and a visit from the NYPD. The reports were exaggerated, if not entirely made up. But it was just the kind of notoriety that attention-starved Silicon Alleyites craved. Dachis still gets testy about the postparty gossip, though he boasts that "it still goes down as one of the best parties we've ever had."
The shindig and the move deflected attention away from the agency's work for clients such as IBM; some industry wags accused the company of having "blown" its Omnicom cash. Razorfish chief executive Jeff Dachis responds only, "We've invested in a variety of things." He points out that over the past year, the agency's staff increased from 15 to 45, and that its profitability is up 1,000 percent.This, remember, occurred at a time when Razorfish was trying to convince people that "a bouncing blue dot on a web page" was a business plan. I am not making this up.
A few years later, Razorfish's management stepped down. The company was then acquired by Microsoft (MSFT) and later sold on again to Publicis (PUB) where, one presumes, there is adult supervision. There's a management lesson in here somewhere, which I'm guessing you can figure out for yourselves.