Rich LeFurgy

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When Rich LeFurgy ditched a 17-year career at N.W. Ayer & Partners five years ago and took an Internet job at half the salary, colleagues thought he was nuts.

But to Mr. LeFurgy, it made sense to move from exec VP at a century-old New York agency to ad sales chief at interactive venture Starwave. "The potential of the Internet far outweighed the risk," he says. "In fact, it didn't seem like a risk. It seemed like the right thing to do."

Mr. LeFurgy's jump to Starwave -- years before it became fashionable to leave the old economy for the new -- put him in place to help start and then lead the Internet Advertising Bureau. Last year, he moved to his current post as partner at Walden Group's Walden VC, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Mr. LeFurgy says he was hooked the moment he saw the Internet on an Ayer colleague's computer in late 1994. Soon after, he was wired to the Web at home, staying up weekends till 3 a.m., "absolutely consumed with the Internet," he recalls.

Internet advertising was almost non-existent then, and the debate was simmering about the commercialization of the original non-commercial Internet. From the start, Mr. LeFurgy says he assumed advertising and sponsorships would be central to the medium. He had worked on traditional, direct and event marketing projects at Ayer, and he saw Web applications for all of them.

Mr. LeFurgy approached Starwave after reading a story about the company in Advertising Age. In June 1995, he moved west to set up Starwave's sales operation. "I had a new industry [in] the Internet, a new career in sales, a new city in Seattle," Mr. LeFurgy recalls. He went from an old world of planning and working through channels to a new planet with no rules.

"In the Internet world, if things don't go as planned, it's just new information; it's not that you failed," he says. "The ready, shoot, aim of the Internet was anything but what we did in the agency world."

Yet Mr. LeFurgy saw a need for structure. Web interests convened at the offices of CNET Networks in February 1996 to discuss creating a trade group. He emerged as chairman of what is now the Internet Advertising Bureau.

"We were really inventing ourselves," Mr. LeFurgy says. "It was like going to a therapeutic group. Not only was it a group of people who spoke the same language, but they were going through the same growing pains."

The Internet is now mainstream, Mr. LeFurgy notes, with Web ad spending soaring over the past six years from zero to an expected $4 billion in 1999.

When Walt Disney Co. acquired Starwave, Mr. LeFurgy became senior VP of Disney's Buena Vista Internet Group. He left in 1998 and joined Walden on a full-time basis last August, planning to put his understanding of the Internet and marketing to use as a venture capitalist.

Mr. LeFurgy argues the Internet economy is just at its beginning. "We have the breadth and the depth of the Internet infrastructure and the imagination of the business world," he says. "What we're going to accomplish in the next five to 10 years is going to be truly remarkable. I think `now' always will be the most exciting place to be on the Internet."

Retailer John Wanamaker said: "Half my advertising is wasted; I just don't know which half." Says Mr. LeFurgy: "We're going to figure out which half and redeploy the money."

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