“The process of the cultural and creative reaffirmation of Martićeva cannot be compared to similar processes in other big cities in the world, where they can be fascinating, but also jeopardizing. But I think the process is good and definitely necessary in Zagreb.”
The 404 digital agency has existed for two years and has been gradually but constantly growing in its business and the number of employees. It was founded by Nikola Vrdoljak and Martina Pintarić — he had previously managed the Gignernet agency within the now closed company Digitel, and she had worked as a communication consultant at Premisa and Millenium promocija. They share their workspace at the Victims of Fascism Square with their partner companies 42 and 7 of 9, cultivating a broad range of activities and becoming increasingly present and recognizable both on the regional and global markets. We talked to Nikola about the meaning behind the enigmatic numerical names, about their old and new projects and about his perception of the neighbourhood he works in and the changes that have been happening here recently.
Nikola Vrdoljak: The 404 agency deals with communication and digital business. We found our niche in the fact that the field of communications and PR is still insufficiently digitalized, and we connected the strong resources from our previous agency, Digitel, with communication experts. Therefore, we deal with everything within that spectre — we have PR, social content, performance marketing and digital advertising departments. There are 44 of us in the agency, a number that now accidentally coincides with our name. We have been at the Victims of Fascism Square for a year. Before that we were located at 10 Ilica Street, next to Zagreb Dance Centre, but that space had become too small, so we moved to this neighbourhood.
Among the projects we are currently working on, one of the most interesting is the taxi application Uber, but we mostly collaborate with big corporations, like most agencies of our size. Besides that, we are also organizing the Weekend Media Festival with the event agency Pepermint. We also have a new project named Piknik, which is targeted at a similar audience as the Design District, but has a more businesslike character. Piknik is a place where the media, marketing, digital communications and people from those fields are gathered with the idea of popularizing certain topics and modernization of those, conditionally speaking, industries.
At the first edition of Piknik we had guests from the Silicon Valley, thirty Stanford students with their professor, etc. In the future, we will try to bring the topics closer to what we do and popularize them as widely as we can. The first Picnic was held at Johann Franck coffee house, and it generated such interest that there wasn’t enough room for all of the thousand people that came. It is a brotherly project of the Weekend Media Festival (held every September in Rovinj), while Piknik will be held every two months in Zagreb.
We have a partner connection with the agency 42, but we are two separate companies — they are in the business of web design and development. What you see around you in this space is 404, while the other rooms are occupied by the companies 42 and 7 of 9. We named ourselves 404 because we needed to find a name quickly, and we had a project of the same name. Younger generations are mostly aware that the number designates a lost webpage, which originates from the story about the room 404 at the CERN Institute, where the future world wide web was created. It was an early peer-to-peer network over which scientific papers and works were shared. When somebody was looking for a scientific paper and couldn’t find it, the request would go to the 404 network that would solve the problem. We thought it was cool! We like the fact that the name is numeric because it functions globally, it is recognizable. We even sort of liked its negative aspect, like in The Smashing Pumpkins songs. Everything that is not sweet and nice is good.
The 404 project dealt with the huge media space that remains unused on the Internet. We created a sort of a web service other media could register with and donate their unused web space to, while initiatives that needed the space could ask for it. For example, if there was an initiative for the construction of bike paths in the city, the information would be automatically forwarded to all registered media, and as soon as somebody clicked “ok”, the initiative would get the space. The project was named 404 because an Internet error turned into something useful to everybody.
The name of the partner company 42 originates, obviously, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book series by Douglas Adams, where the number is the answer to the question about the meaning of life. When we were starting our third company, it was logical to choose another numerical and science-fiction related name, so we chose 7 of 9 as an obvious reference to Star Trek. Starting new companies for new activities is common in our business, and we decided to stick to numbers in order to remain recognizable. And there is really nobody else on the market named in that way.
I don’t know what is the cause and what is the consequence in this neighbourhood. Before we came here, we had heard that Martićeva had thrived because all sorts of things started to happen, but maybe the happenings started because the street started changing. By its volume, the process of the cultural and creative reaffirmation of Martićeva cannot be compared to similar processes in other big cities in the world, where they can be fascinating, but also jeopardizing. But I think the process is good and definitely necessary in Zagreb. The differences in Martićeva and its surroundings our evident from the crafts, shops, studios, agencies and everything else that is located here, and that is great. Now, I hope that a project like the Design District will give the neighbourhood an additional push. I think it is more important to create a buzz around the whole story because it will attract even more people than if we just said, “there are a hundred businesses here”, and some of them might give up sooner or later.
But that does not relate just to Martićeva and this neighbourhood. I see big changes in all of Zagreb. Without discussing the causes and consequences, good or bad (which includes the devastation of the former economy), I am convinced, for example, that something that will fit in with the current tendencies is going to open at the corner of Martićeva and Smičiklasova streets instead of Diona. Furthermore, there is an increasing number of healthy food shops in Zagreb, everything is green, green… The older generation hospitality business, from the time when all you had to do was open a cafe and decorate it in any way and people would just come by default, has waned. Now you have to think about what kind of juice or coffee you are offering, how it all looks, what kind of guests you want to attract… I think ten years ago nobody was thinking about that yet. There were cheaper and more expensive places, and that was it.
However, Zagreb lacks people who have enough money to afford such luxuries, that is, everyone’s purchasing power should be greater in order for something like that to develop in the first place. The process is similar to yuppie gentrification, which can surely also be viewed negatively. While visiting New York, I went to a coffee with Anja Mutić, so I know that in her neighbourhood you couldn’t see anything but Apple computers, iPhones and takeaway coffees any more. That can sound cool in Zagreb, where we are longing for a global hub, but when you’re there, it can be frightening.
Real estate rental costs in that New York neighbourhood have risen by 50%, which means that only certain occupations have survived. Cultural and media workers who participated in the first wave of “hipsterization” of the neighbourhood have actually got the worst of it because the whole area is now filled with start-ups and management and consulting firms. The process is tricky and multilayered, and needs to be viewed from many points of view. To us it provides the feeling of connecting with the world, which we miss immensely, because we feel that we are on the periphery. And that hurts.
Also, the whole process is very political. 20% of Croatian population is unemployed, 50% are only interested in fulfilling basic life needs, and mere 10 to 15% of people, maybe less, are doing creative and cultural work in urban centres, among which some have money, and others don’t… They want to be a part of the global community, they are interested in bicycle paths, green food, unconventional spirituality, whatever… There is a certain conflict between those two worlds, but that is also happening in the USA, in Germany… You see, workers might not be interested in what we are talking about, and rightly so, because they cannot afford to send their children to kindergarten. But, regardless of the conflict, I think it is good that something like that is happening in Zagreb, because the scene needs to be cultivated and get its space. It would be great if people would see Martićeva street as that space, but nothing will happen by force here.