Dot-com disillusion

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Chris Steinkamp worked at TWBA/Chiat/Day, New York, for more than four years when, in February, he jumped ship to join an Internet start-up. Mr. Steinkamp, 36, lured by a rising Nasdaq, the dream of striking it rich through stock options and the opportunity to build a business from the ground up, gave up a job as national advertising account supervisor to join fledgling dot-com mValue, which focused on Web tracking.

"I had heard so many stories about the possibility of making money, and I really wanted to go somewhere where I could be part of a team that was building a brand," Mr. Steinkamp said.

Five months later, he was back at an agency.


Instead of the promised land of unlimited financial and creative potential, he found what's now becoming an all-too-familiar story of a dot-com in chaos -- unable to commit to a business plan, attract consumers or bring in enough money to satisfy Wall Street. "The business model changed a number of times while I was there; they were under pressure from the venture capitalists to make money quickly," said Mr. Steinkamp, now an account director with Deutsch's iDeutsch Internet arm, Los Angeles.

In less than six months' time, mValue's business plan went from protecting consumers' privacy -- by alerting users when a Web site attempted to track their movements on the Internet -- to tracking and selling users' Web activity with their permission.

One result of that retooling: The company no longer was interested in the marketing Mr. Steinkamp had been hired to do. What's more, the plummeting Nasdaq dashed Mr. Steinkamp's hopes for his stock options. So faced with mValue's uncertain future, Mr. Steinkamp decided to return to a more traditional workplace.

He is not alone. Advertising agencies and recruiters report that large numbers of the employees who defected from traditional workplaces for dot-com start-ups in the last year now are seeking to return.

"People are clamoring to come back," said Keri Drobner, human resources manager at J. Walter Thompson USA, New York. Ms. Drobner estimated JWT, which employs 450 people, currently receives 50 resumes a week from people trying to leave start-ups. In one case a turnaround was so fast, Ms. Drobner said, that when the employee showed up again at her old job, co-workers assumed she had been on vacation.


"About four or five months ago, we started being able to hire people faster than we were losing them," said Geoff Thompson, FCB Worldwide creative director, and chairman-CEO of FCB's San Francisco office. "There's been a dramatic easing of the churn rate out here."

Steve Gundersen, CEO of executive recruiter Gundersen Partners, likewise said he now sees employees returning to traditional advertising agencies "by the bucketloads."

"I probably get three to four e-mails a month about people that left here in the last 12 to 18 months" for dot-coms, said DDB Worldwide CEO Ken Kaess. "They're now saying, `It's time to come home.' "

Like Mr. Steinkamp, many who return say they were disillusioned both by the less-than-stellar performance of the company's stock and the constant changes in their company's core business. "This was a whole new kind of fluidity that was beyond anything I had experienced," said Fred Rubin, 47, a former senior partner-group account director at TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York. Mr. Rubin spent 10 months at, an e-tailer of liquor, before taking over as exec VP-director at iDeutsch.


"There's something a little passionless about it," he said, bemoaning the way continually rethought its mission. "I'm in the marketing and communication business; spin in itself does not offend me." But, he added, the ceaseless "gamesmanship and spinning and repositioning" did not make any business sense to him. "If Ikea changed its business model every three weeks, what would the brand be about?"

Louis Amoroso, president-CEO of, disagreed that the company's blueprint significantly changed. "We implemented a business model in 1999 and didn't change course at all," he said. However, he admitted the business did not grow as quickly as he had hoped, noting the original plan had selling to customers in 15 states by this time. It currently sells in five states.

Others rejoining traditional businesses are leaving start-ups in financial disarray, barely getting out before the layoffs. Chris Robertson, 25, went to work at the Charlotte, Va.-based dot-com Value America in May 1999, shortly after he left school. By December, in an omen of things to come for dot-coms, the company laid off almost half its workforce.

"My morale just went straight down and I was like, `I'm posting my resume,"' said Mr. Robertson, who is now an interactive designer with Martin Agency, Richmond, Va. In August, Value America filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code.


Joe Lozito, 28, now director of technical strategies at JWT, New York, said that he, too, finds a traditional corporate environment to have unexpected advantages over a start-up. He left software marketer Information Builders after seven years to join Gryphon Group, a Web design company. Although in existence for five years, Gryphon Group had not yet gone public and considered itself a start-up, Mr. Lozito said. "Having come from Information Builders, I thought what I wanted was a start-up deal," he said.

However, Mr. Lozito discovered he missed traditional corporate structure. "There were no real business processes in place," he said.

Agencies are welcoming back their former employees with open arms. Most take the view that people who took a risk should not now be shunned, said Judy Wald, founder and partner at executive recruiter Judy Wald Partners, New York. "Anybody who's venturesome is not reprehensible," she said.

Far from holding it against workers who tried to cash in on the Internet gold rush, many agencies are offering to pay their former employees at least as much, if not more, than what they earned before leaving. Some people, in fact, might even be able to drastically raise their salaries as a result of their experiences with dot-coms.


Ms. Drobner at JWT said the agency is currently in discussions with one former employee who left a job with a salary of around $70,000 for a yearly salary of $125,000 as director of advertising at a start-up. Now, five months later, this person wants to come back and the agency is considering how closely to match the dot-com salary.

Former dot-com workers themselves are quick to point out how valuable their Internet adventures are to traditional agencies. "The atmosphere [at mValue] was very much like what we were used to," Mr. Steinkamp said. In the end, he added, the qualities prized by dot-coms, such as flexibility and the ability to move quickly, are useful at old economy businesses too. "There's a lot to be said for spending five to six months at a dot-com," he said.

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