After discreetly disappearing from Advertising.com more than a year ago, 33-year-old founder and former chief product officer John Ferber has emerged in Florida with a string of new ventures - including an online "popularity" pageant where viewers can vote for their choice for "Miss Internet 2008."
At first glance, it's not exactly what one might expect from the one-time Owings Mills whiz kid, who built a wildly successful Baltimore company based on game technology he created in college, then sold it to AOL for $435 million. (AOL has since rebuilt its own business strategy around the company, Advertising.com, whose technology places relevant ads on Web sites).
But it seems right in line for Johnny Ferbs, as he was known on MySpace until late yesterday, when his screen name was changed to John Ferber.
His page there says home is now Boynton Beach, Fla., not Baltimore (he moved about a year ago). And it features the logo for the 2008 Miss Internet Pageant - a drawing of a bikini-clad woman - in the background. There was also a snapshot of a shirtless guy in sunglasses, who appeared to be Ferber, standing with a real woman in a bathing suit, but it was replaced by an image of a dog last night.
Ferber has left messages around the MySpace community, all of which once featured the shirtless shot as his calling card, like the message he posted in February paying homage to Canton's Red Fish restaurant.
" ... Miss you guys and that place and the Guinness beef, and all the other stuff!! See you soon," he wrote on the Red Fish page, signing off as "Johnny Ferbs." When asked via telephone yesterday if people might be surprised by the shift from relative corporate culture to Internet pageantry, Ferber said: "People that know me, I don't think would be surprised at all. And those who don't?" he added, laughing, "Probably."
The pageant, launched Sept. 1, allows women to post pictures and videos online at www.missinternetpageant.com. So far, roughly 200 have, offering up photos of themselves in various states of dress - from fleece pullovers to bikini bottoms.
The highest vote-getter by Jan. 31, 2008, will win "up to $25,000 in cash and prizes and the title of Miss Internet 2008!!," according to the site. The grand prize winner gets $5,000, a trip to South Florida, modeling agent introductions and will be featured in a Miss Internet 2008 calendar.
It's one of many pageants to come under an umbrella company and brand-building project called Internet Pageantry, Ferber said. But yesterday, it was listed as part of another one of Ferber's ventures dealing in information markets and called Guess Now LLC.
"I have a multitude of things going on," Ferber said, including an incubator for various businesses called Vandelay Industries, in a nod to the phony latex company featured on Seinfeld. Ferber said he has several announcements about the businesses planned for the coming weeks, but preferred to keep the details secret for now.
According to Guess Now's Web site, www.guessnow.com, the Delray Beach, Fla.-based business pays cash for predicting random events - like which celebrity couple will break up first - in exchange for the right to collect data and send players advertisements, unless they opt out.
In signing up for the online pageant, voters trade their e-mail address for the chance to win a trip to the final judging, an iPhone and even cash, which, along with the company, is financed by Ferber, who earned about $70 million when he sold Advertising.com.
Contestants, who must be at least 18 and live in the United States or Canada, have to give up a little more information, including copies of a government-issued ID ("such as a driver's license, passport, or state/provincial identification card") and another identity verifier, "such as a school or employer identification card, Social Security card, or birth certificate."
"This is not about e-mail marketing," Ferber said. In 2005, the Federal Trade Commission determined that Ferber had violated federal law by surreptitiously bundling adware, which can cause annoying ads to pop up on a computer user's screen, with security software offered by Advertising.com.
Ferber was ordered to notify the FTC of all new business ventures or changes in employment through 2015 as a result and said he has complied.
"With respect to the Federal Trade Commission, he did break my heart," said Steve Shubitz. Ferber was among the first to advertise on - and contribute - to a forum Shubitz started in the late 1990s, called geekvillage.com. "But what's done is done. ... Everybody's entitled to one mistake in life."
Shubitz, who lives in California, has followed news of Ferber's successes, but he hadn't seen the latest venture. By its description, he determined it would be a hit.
"It's a spin on social networking, it's a clever, clever way to capitalize on MySpace and Facebook and the rest of them" Shubitz said. Ferber and his brother "started Advertising.com when they were kids, and look how that turned out. ... Anything those two guys touch will be a success."
While in college at Towson University, Ferber created game technology that he later translated into online advertising technology. He and his older brother Scott then paired up and launched a business in 1998 that grew into Advertising.com.
When the brothers sold the company to AOL in 2004, they were in line to net about $72 million apiece before taxes from the deal. They had turned Ferber's college project into a booming business with revenue of $132 million in 2003. Last year, Advertising.com brought in $455 million for parent AOL.
Both Ferber brothers quietly took leaves of absence from Advertising.com in 2006, and are no longer with the company.
Advertising.com declined to comment on the Ferbers. And Scott Ferber declined to comment, saying in an e-mail that "now is not the right time for me to go public with my current or future plans."
John Ferber wouldn't shed any light on his brother's activities, either. "I'm not my brother's keeper. I cannot comment on my brother and he cannot comment on me," John Ferber said, adding to the mysterious air surrounding his own business ventures in the pipeline.
On those, John Ferber would talk only about his motivations, which he said have to do with helping others.
"When my story is done you'll understand much better," Ferber said. "I'm very fortunate and blessed to have the success I've had in life. Nothing makes me feel better than helping others."