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Critics question ads amid MarchFirst shake-up

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With its run on bad news over the past month, MarchFirst Inc. might qualify as the Job of Internet professional services firms.

It announced the firing of 1,000 employees, it reported a shortfall of 19 cents on its anticipated earnings per share, and it revealed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it is mired in a financing crisis.

In the b-to-b marketing world, speculation is circulating about what role, if any, MarchFirst's distinctive yet controversial branding campaign has played in the company's woes. The television spots of the reportedly $30 million campaign, which was created by McKinney & Silver, an agency owned by MarchFirst, show the reaction of people to remarkable firsts-the first man on the moon, the first cubist exhibition, the first miniskirt.

Mark Jarvis, senior VP-marketing of Oracle Corp. and among MarchFirst's target market, criticized the ads. "The average reader of the ads doesn't get anything from them other than bewilderment," he said. "That's a lot of money to spend on confusion."

Indeed, the love-it-or-hate-it campaign may violate the first rule of advertising: Do no harm. The ads also raise the question: Can an ad campaign kill a company?

"The worst that can normally happen is that people just ignore it; they generally don't get mad at advertising," said Al Ries, chairman of branding consultancy Ries & Ries Inc.

But he acknowledged that ads by a company such as MarchFirst, which in addition to IT and business consulting creates marketing programs, can be more damaging-in part because marketing executives are a key target. "I think this is a special circumstance," Ries said. "Maybe the advertising has contributed to their problem. Their ads are their credentials."

MarchFirst's global branding manager Adam Dettman was aware of the importance of the ads as a showcase for the company's skills. "They needed to be great," he said. "They needed to be breakthrough. I definitely think we broke through."

While benchmarked awareness metrics aren't available yet, Dettman said one key goal of the campaign, attracting recruits, was met. Résumés increased from 2,500 in March to 11,000 in July, a jump Dettman attributed to the campaign, which broke in June. That performance, however, seems to be a moot point for a company that recently fired 1,000 employees.

On the plus side, MarchFirst has described its problems as having too many clients-in particular, too many small ones-so advertising hasn't hurt it there. In fact, the company notched a handful of new business wins lately, including projects for AT&T Corp. and FedEx Corp.

And the ad did receive favorable reviews. In particular, this magazine's Chasers column, written by an advertising creative director, lauded the inventive ads even though they broke many advertising rules.

Other advertising professionals didn't necessarily second that viewpoint. Tom Rentschler, president-executive creative director of HSR Business-to-Business Inc., said the ads fail to adequately explain MarchFirst's business.

"This is a multimillion-dollar ad campaign that says absolutely nothing about what they do," Rentschler said. "If you didn't already know what they do, you're clueless. This is an example of the ultra image-y and branding ads [produced by dot-com companies]. That kind of thing has become discredited by the lack of business success."

Tom Stein, CEO of Stein Rogan & Partners, said, "It was disconnected from offering any sense of what MarchFirst could do for any organization, and it was not interesting or compelling enough for people to [care] about it."

A MarchFirst client, Dik Glass, exec-VP at FAO Schwarz, raised an eyebrow over the ads, even though he said he was satisfied with the work the company has provided, which included b-to-b services. "I've indicated to senior management at MarchFirst that the ads are great and eye-catching, but at the end they should have had a tagline," he said. "It should have said, 'MarchFirst: Internet consultant to the world,' or something like that."

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