MARCHFIRST: Integration will make or break roll-up's success

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marchfirst may be a new company, but its main interactive marketing component reaches back to one of the earliest interactive shops -- CKS Partners, which eventually morphed into USWeb/CKS.

Whittman-Hart, a systems integrator that this year bought San Francisco-based USWeb/CKS to create the merged MarchFirst, is trying to do what will be its most challenging integration job ever.


Whether President-CEO Robert Bernard, who runs the combined company from a Chicago headquarters, can integrate the front-end design and interactive marketing company into his back-end, technically oriented empire has yet to be determined. Investors initially demonstrated their unhappiness with the acquisition by chopping more than 40% from MarchFirst's stock price in the first three days after the merger. At its low point in May, the stock had fallen 80% from its 52-week peak, though earlier this month it recovered some ground.

Mr. Bernard, 38, is forging ahead. He says he plans to call on outside consultants as well as internal senior managers to meld the two companies. MarchFirst has about 9,000 employees in 70-plus offices around the world, with USWeb/CKS providing almost half that number of employees.

Tom Suiter, MarchFirst chief creative officer (and a founder of CKS and former chief creative officer at USWeb/CKS), says competing in e-business today demands that agencies marry technical expertise and marketing strategy.

"As a combined company, MarchFirst brings together back-office management with Web-site design and marketing," he says.


As a combined entity, MarchFirst makes a stronger presentation to pitch Fortune 1,000 companies, Mr. Suiter says.

"The whole e-business climate has changed quite a bit in the last couple of months. Last year was Web mania. With serious players jumping in on all levels, it was an absolute feast of new companies getting into dot-com stuff. What's starting to happen this year is Wall Street and investors are demanding to see results. And that demands a new way of approaching the business -- I'm a founder of CKS, and we merged with USWeb a little over a year ago in our belief that it's not only the brand, but it's the technology behind it that supports it. We needed a strong injection of technology through combining with USWeb. With the MarchFirst merger" -- which consummated on March 1, hence the name -- "it was our belief that it's the three entities of brand building, business strategy and technology that can best serve the marketplace."

Web marketing, Mr. Suiter points out, "has moved well beyond the banner. It's all about how does a brand touch the consumer at every single point of their experience -- whether online, on TV, in print, in-store. We have to dimensionalize the brand in more and different ways." MarchFirst has an offline play through McKinney & Silver, a Raleigh, N.C., ad agency that CKS bought in 1997.


Mark Frankel, executive creative director of MarchFirst, notes companies increasingly are judged by their ability to deliver a marketing message across platforms and media.

"It all has to be multidisciplinary," Mr. Frankel says.

Mr. Frankel says that for client Visa USA, the company is working on Olympic sponsorship strategies -- everything from on-site trucks, jackets and flags to branding efforts for

"We won the Olympics assignment because we've been able to demonstrate we understand their brand," Mr. Frankel says.

"It's all about integration and preparation for what's to come in the future," says Mr. Suiter. "The business reality is it's a very complex environment in which to work, and I feel now we are better positioned to get into tighter relationships with client CEOs."

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