Despite the recent collapse, dot-coms worthy of our praise

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It's time for a dot-com frontlash. The world's taken entirely too much glee in the wipeout of the "e" economy. True, there were a lot of awful business ideas getting incubated before they got scrambled by a harsh marketplace. And yes, long before the Nasdaq collapsed last spring, this space was in the forefront of the "new rationalism," arguing for coherent business models, revenues and even profits, when all three were considered relics of a bygone era.

But the celebration of ruin-represented by such admittedly delightful snuff sites as distasteful. One now understands Moses' reaction when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf: Don't backslide, people! The rules have changed.

For those who are tempted to venerate old idols, I proffer some new prayers of thanksgiving for the ways in which digital thinking has improved business in general, and the media and marketing industries in particular:

Be thankful entrepreneurship counts. It wasn't so long ago that the public culture scorned risk-taking. Success was defined as joining a large company and toiling in anonymity until the gold watch was granted. Consider what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1967: "With the rise of the modern corporation, the emergence of the organization required by modern technology and planning, and the divorce of the owner of the capital from the control of the enterprise, the entrepreneur no longer exists as an individual person in the mature industrial enterprise." Wrong. Thanks to the dot-economy, we have learned anew that individual creativity drives innovation and growth.

Be thankful for the talent unleashed into the economy. Sure, there are hundreds of failed companies out there. But they have given training to a new generation of skilled workers and managers now ready to join and revitalize your company. You can also acquire, if you're insightful enough, some of the infrastructure developed by e-companies to cut swaths of inefficiency out of manufacturing, distribution and marketing processes. One might even argue the race belongs to whomever most effectively rolls up the enormous capability pool now flooding the marketplace.

Be thankful there is an audience out there. Remember when "consumers" were statistics gleaned from surveys, given voice only in occasional, superficial focus groups watched from behind a two-way mirror? Those days are gone. Consumers are no longer an abstraction, but living, breathing men and women who can-and will-tell you what they want, when they want it. They may make you less comfortable than when you were standing behind the mirror, but they can (if you listen) save you from hundred-million-dollar errors.

Be thankful for integrated marketing. The Internet has, finally and irrevocably, taught everyone that people react to messages communicated across multiple channels, and that effective marketing must contend with the whole person, and all those channels. I was reminded how radical a proposition this once was when prepping for my interview with departing Interpublic Group of Cos. Chairman-CEO Phil Geier, which runs elsewhere in this issue. Only 10 years ago, Bob James, then the head of Interpublic's McCann-Erickson agency, insisted to me that the concept of integrated marketing was "smoke." Referring to early systems developed by competitors to create holistic marketing programs linking above-the-line and below-the-line communications, Mr. James said: "This idea of the 'Whole Egg,' the 'symphony,' doesn't really work. It looks better on paper than in reality." Fortunately, his company decided otherwise: Today, more than 50 percent of Interpublic's revenues derive from ancillary services, up from only 10 percent less than five years ago. Integration remains a management challenge, of course. But the Web-which can place a company's entire marketing communications program on a single site, if not a single page-is forcing it to happen.

And so, idolators, pay heed! There is no turning back. Say a prayer for the dot-com dead-and use their hard-earned wisdom to plan your future.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at [email protected]

Copyright December 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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