marchFirst (US)

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MarchFirst, launched in 2000, was one of the first super-agencies of the dotcom boom, formed from the acquisition of new media pioneers USWeb and CKS. Yet despite its size, marchFirst fell apart spectacularly after only a year when the boom turned to bust. Part of the business survived as a digital design agency under its original name of WhittmanHart. Later it became Band Digital for a while, before it too finally shut its doors in 2013.

Whizzkid entrepreneur Robert Bernard dropped out of university in 1984 to start up his own IT consultancy under the name Whittman-Hart. There were no Whittman and Hart. Instead the company was named after two fictional characters from The Paper Chase, a novel (and movie) about freshmen at Harvard Law School. The company specialised in software solutions for large corporations, and did well out of the boom in IT spending in the late 1980s and early 1990s, establishing several offices around the US. Bernard took the business public in 1996 in the frenzy of the internet boom, then doubled the size of the company a year later by acquiring US rivals Axis Consulting and Expert Buying Services, followed by UK-based World Consulting. Further acquisitions included QCC and North Central Consulting in 1998, Waterfield Technology Group and BALR in 1999.

The biggest deal of all, however, was the acquisition of interactive design giant USWeb/CKS at the close of 1999 in an all-share deal worth around $6bn. As its name suggested, this was itself the product of another merger. USWeb had been one of North America's first fully fledged internet agencies, founded in 1995 by a group of former Novell software employees. Run by CEO Joseph Firmage with backing from a variety of venture capital groups, the company spent most of 1996 buying up a variety of small interactive agencies around the US to create a national network. The following year USWeb went public, and used the additional funds to purchase network services group Grey Peak and digital design agency CKS.

The latter was the brainchild of three former Apple employees. Bill Cleary left Apple in 1987 to set up marketing company Cleary Communications, producing multimedia presentations for his former employers. He was joined over the next two years by former colleagues Mark Kvamme and Tom Suiter, whose initials gave the business its new name in 1991. Despite its reputation as a new media company, CKS actually provided a wide range of below-the-line marketing services, including packaging design. For example, one major project for United Airlines involved the computerised redesign of the carrier's branding on everything from aircraft to business cards.

CKS floated in 1995, with marketing services group Interpublic as a key investor. The business expanded rapidly in 1996 in line with the development of the internet and in 1997, CKS established a German base with the acquisition of local agency Prisma. The merger of of USWeb and CKS in 1997 created what was at the time America's biggest interactive agency, and one of the country's top 20 marketing groups. In 1999, following completion of the merger, Firmage retired from the group, replaced by Mark Kvamme, who moved the company's HQ to San Francisco and led the acquisition of B2B commerce consultancy Mitchell Madison, before agreeing another deal with Whittman-Hart at the end of the year.

The merger of Whittman-Hart and USWeb/CKS was completed at the very beginning of March 2000, giving rise to the new corporate name of marchFirst. Combining Whittman-Hart's software systems and consultancy business with USWeb/CKS's strategic and design offering, the business had a huge portfolio of digital and e-business skills. Bernard, then just 37, headed the merged entity, which had combined revenues of more than $1bn, and employed more than 8,500 people in 70 offices and 14 countries worldwide.

But almost immediately, financial markets began to turn against the internet sector. Technology stock prices crashed during March and April, and the remainder of the year was marked by a series of high-profile dotcom bankruptcies, several of whom had been marchFirst clients. In the last three months of 2000 alone, the company reported a $73m loss, and later laid off over 2,000 staff and closed its Montreal office. Just a year after the first anniversary of the company's formation, Bob Bernard and two other senior executives resigned from the business after announcing that revenues had plunged by a half. The company's share price promptly collapsed, dropping to less than 6 cents (down from its debut price a year earlier of almost $30).

A few days later marchFirst announced it would lay off a third of its remaining staff, and sold the Whittman-Hart consultancy business to rival Divine, before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Divine also bought the assets of the group's venture capital fund BlueVector as well as application service provider HostOne. Other chunks of the business including key offices in New York and San Francisco were sold to another expanding consultancy, SBI & Company. Havas advertising's Arnold Worldwide arm stepped in to snap up McKinney & Silver, a traditional advertising agency, originally part of the CKS Group, which had handled all marchFirst's advertising, as well as work from a small group of third-party clients.

Surprisingly perhaps, Whittman-Hart proved to be the sole survivor of the turbulent marchFirst years. After leaving marchFirst, Bob Bernard founded a new consultancy, Form Function Consulting. In 2003, he reacquired Whittman-Hart from Divine (which subsequently changed its name, becoming Data Return Managed Services). Form Function was merged into his original business, which dropped its hyphen to become WhittmanHart. 

Tragically, Bob Bernard died from a heart attack in February 2007, aged just 45. The WhittmanHart Consulting division was acquired in 2008 by Indian management consulting company Rolta, but the design agency survived, often called in as a subcontractor by better known agencies to execute web strategy. Its strong technical reputation earned the agency a regular place among the leaders in Forrester's biannual web design survey during the second half of the 2000s. It eventually relaunched itself in 2010 as Band Digital, but filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

CKS founders Cleary and Kvamme separately run their own private equity companies, Cleary & Partners and Drive Capital. Tom Suiter ran his own creative consultancy for several years, and is a co-founder of technology support service Enjoy. USWeb's Joseph Firmage established the Academy of Science & Arts engaged in advanced physics and UFO research.

Last full revision 3rd July 2020

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