Agency Profile: marchFIRST

The No. 1 interactive agency has had some high-profile successes, and some equally visible challenges.
Standing at the pinnacle of Ad Age’s Top 100 U.S. Interactive Agencies list, über agency marchFIRST—forged through the merger of Whittman-Hart and USWeb/CKS—officially launched on March 1, 2000. It’s been a rocky nine months.

Buffeted by the decline in the digital economy, the company’s stock went into freefall and failed to achieve third-quarter estimates. Then the company was named in a class-action lawsuit alleging it had misrepresented itself to the market to inflate its stock price. By mid-November marchFIRST announced it would cut 1,000 jobs from its 10,000 person workforce to stanch the hemorrhaging. And at the end of the month, acknowledging poor performance and the need for $100 million in additional funding to meet financial obligations, marchFIRST announced plans to “realign its business strategy and restructure its operations.” Time will tell if this wounded behemoth will survive.

Things had looked promising for this marriage at the start of the millennium. USWeb/CKS, which brought ad agency expertise and significant billings to marchFIRST, focused on the business-to-consumer digital marketplace through brand-building, creative design, and e-commerce solutions. Whittman-Hart contributed back-end IT and business-to-business services. Together they offered clients a large and flexible menu of interdependent ad-agency, business-strategy, and systems-integration services.

With this multidisciplinary tool chest, marchFIRST positioned itself as a one-stop shop able to help companies develop brands, business models, systems, and processes to succeed in the digital economy. While employees toiled in 72 cities and 14 countries worldwide, marchFIRST pointed to a number of innovations on behalf of clients who range from Internet start-ups to global companies. Apple, Adidas, Audi, Saks Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwarz, Harley-Davidson, Sega, Harrah’s,, and Williams-Sonoma are among the best known.

To build momentum for The Kobe, an Adidas basketball shoe designed for Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant, marchFIRST recently created “Assignment: Kobe,” a series of four interactive teaser ads. Every two weeks a new episode was added to, leading up to the final one, which unveiled the shoe.

For client Audi of America, the agency’s Raleigh office provided traditional ad agency services: it developed a brand strategy, collateral materials, a website, and on and offline advertising. “The idea,” according to svp exec media director John Klein, “was that all the consumer touchpoints relate to one another. If you see an Audi TV spot, it’s related to the magazine ads, which is related to the online banner ads, which then complete the connection at the website.”

To construct a target audience profile and understand how its members consume, the agency interrelates databases. “We will mix data from MRI and AtPlan to get a comprehensive view of their communication habits both offline and online,” says Klein.

The planners also attempted to maximize the relationship between offline and online media. “Heavy Internet users are also very specific TV viewers, they listen to the radio, they read magazines.” When Klein drew up the media plan, “We looked at the interests of Audi prospects and segmented by lifestyle category, choosing sports, lifestyle, and car-enthusiast content in a combination of media.”

The agency also counts itself as a client. Charged with getting the marchFIRST name known and known quickly, global advertising manager Adam Dettman turned to McKinney & Silver—the marchFIRST subsidiary known for its creative, planning, and buying expertise—to implement the brand-building process.

The campaign’s initial objective was recruitment. “We’re only as good as the people we have,” Dettman points out. “This market is moving fast. In 1999, almost 260,000 new brands were registered. There’s a lot of clutter out there. To stand out, to create a brand, a buzz, a point of interest, you can’t do it in a small way or a slow way. The market demands that you establish yourself.”

Beginning in June 2000 and scheduled to run though 2001, the multimedia campaign celebrates the human desire to be first, a fundamental motivator in the digital economy as well. “We are applauding creative breakthroughs and new thinking,” claims Robert Bernard, marchFIRST chairman and CEO. “We’re honoring not just the individual person or act, but also the impact that being first has on others. In this campaign, we’re showcasing how firsts can catapult society forward.”

“Through both expected and unexpected media, we try to touch potential recruits and senior-level decision-makers in both business and lifestyle locations,” Dettman explains. “We’ve tried to remain consistent, building associations for memorable firsts in society. We want to build human, emotional bonds with our consumers.”

Employing TV, print, and online to evoke that experience, “the marchFIRST campaign works as a model for an integrated advertising approach,” says Dettman: “TV, to build fast and broad brand awareness; print, to position the company within a business realm; and online, for brand awareness and to drive people to our website to get the most up-to-date information.”

Online ad banner and text-box unit buys went to business and lifestyle sites, including,, Golf Online, and To reach into local talent pools, placements appeared on in cities where marchFIRST has offices. And on E*Trade, marchFIRST took advantage of “ticker targeting” and bought certain ticker symbols in the same way an advertiser would purchase key words on a search site.

Before the campaign launched, the company site got 123,000 hits a day. By July, the average number of hits had climbed to 410,000 and the average user length session more than doubled, from 11 minutes to 24. “And the fact that we received 1,900 resumes in March—and just under 12,000 in July—is the tell-tale sign we reached the right people and got the message out,” Dettman concludes. For now, those resumes will likely be on hold.

Susan Breslow Sardone can be reached at

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