Friday, March 1, 2013

Happy marchFIRST: What I Learned From My Dot-Bomb Experience

Happy marchFIRST, everyone!

If that looks off, then you do not remember marchFIRST, a dot-com era firm that burned brightly and disappeared quickly. If you do recall marchFIRST, the name probably conjures up memories of hubris and failure. Those remembrances are not incorrect, but it is regrettable that marchFIRST's legacy is not more expansive. It was, after all, one of the first organizations to understand and act on how the Internet was going to change everything. By bringing together systems integration firms, digital agencies and brand consultancies, marchFIRST was designed to help clients adapt everything for the digital era.

I was an employee of that firm--one of around 13,000 globally at marchFIRST's peak--and I learned a lot from my experience. Some of it was positive--to this day, I still use the Brand Experience Journey that I helped develop in collaboration with many other bright people in the brand practice--but most of what I learned came from frustration, fear and even shame. I recall:

  • I kept an empty box on my desk, because at any time, my name could have been among those let go in the increasingly frequent RIFs (a new word to me, which stood for Reduction in Force.) I was among the many people working very hard to bring value to clients, but there is nothing one guy shoveling coal in the engine room can do to prevent the Titanic from sinking once it strikes the iceberg.
     
  • I was assigned to a huge team that charged a great deal of money to the nicest clients in world to deliver an un-executable strategy--hundreds of thousands of dollars for binders full of paper. I did my best to elevate my corner of that project, but the years have not dulled the regret I feel for being a small cog in a big machine more dedicated to keeping employees billable than delivering value to that client.
     
  • During the interview process at USWeb/CKS (one of the firms merged to form marchFIRST), I was exposed to a strategy process deck, and I was blown away. Even though I was an experienced digital strategist, I saw charts, tables and diagrams that I could not even comprehend, and I was excited to join the team and elevate my game. I was hired and immediately began to dig, eager to learn the new process, but I was having a curiously difficult time getting details. Months later, I came to realize those charts, tables and diagrams were meaningless--mere props, designed to entice prospects and gullible candidates like me.
      
  • In the waning days, with the office filled with empty Aeron chairs and the specter of bankruptcy and unemployment looming large, I was brought into a team desperately working to complete a significant deal that might keep the wolves at bay (or make our office more desirable for acquisition). My role was small--I was the guy who knew PowerPoint best--but I quickly realized the team was selling a solution that had no basis in research, customer need or reality. It was clear we should be pitching not an entire solution but a strategy engagement to validate the right course, and I voiced this. The room grew silent, I was pulled aside, and I was reminded both of my role on the team and the need to complete the sale at all costs. Those costs included my pride and principles.
      
I could tell more stories, but suffice to say it was an unpleasant time. It took me some years to look back, overlook the emotions and realize I had learned many positive and important lessons from that experience. They include:

  • Desperation, fear and pride can drive even the best among us to become the sorts of people they do not wish to see in the mirror. One can have principles and be ethical, but when unemployment is high and a family's source of income is on the line, even good people can do dubious things.
     
  • There is no overcoming poor leadership. I worked with the finest group of professionals I had every seen up to that point, but all the brains, passion and hard work in the world cannot overcome leaders who do not lead in the right direction.
     
  • Making money is not the goal of a company--making happy clients and customers is the goal, and profits are an outcome. Once an organization puts profits ahead of clients and customers, it is (sooner or later) doomed.
     
  • Make hay when the sun shines, but remember that winter is coming. marchFIRST made buckets of money at first, and leaders acted as if the gravy train was endless. Then the dot-com bubble burst, and there was no way to support the Class A office space, the outlandishly expensive Herman Miller cubicles, the enormous salaries and bonuses and the network television advertising (see below). Excessive margins are fun when you are lucky and skillful enough to earn them, but they are not sustainable. I don't think even a conservative course would have allowed marchFIRST to survive the bubble burst, but I do know a lot of people would have been better off and saved a great deal of pain had leadership been more humble and sensible.
     
  • I can always be a better person. Most of us go through life pretty sure we are good people. I certainly did--until I realized how quickly I would violate my principles out of fear for my job and career. Should I have simply quit rather than compromise my beliefs? I was diligently seeking another opportunity, but with the dot-com world crashing, jobs were scarce. That's not an excuse--I am ultimately responsible for my actions--but after the dust settled, I committed myself to (and constantly struggle to live up to) being aware of the impact I have on those around me, avoiding victim mentality and never allowing fear or laziness stop me from doing what is right. I also want to acknowledge a book that, in many ways, helped me to appreciate my difficult marchFIRST experience and channel it into something positive. The book is Leadership and Self-Deception, and I have recommended it to hundreds of people in the past decade (and now I am recommending it to you). 

Years later, I had the chance to lead an agency team, and the lessons of marchFIRST weighed heavily. The agency team grew, had happy and loyal customers, did spectacular work and became the tightest and most cohesive group of professionals of which I have been a part. I was lucky to have such a great team, but I would like to think the lessons of marchFIRST also helped me to be the kind of leader I aspire to be.

For a long time, all I could see about my mortifying marchFIRST experience was the lemons, but I have come to realize I have made a lot of lemonade in the twelve years since. And maybe that is the most important lesson of all.

Happy marchFIRST!

  

3 comments:

Christine Duecker said...

I do remember marchFIRST! Many difficult but necessary lessons were learned during the Dot-Bomb era. Great article, Augie.

Dorothy Moller said...

I remember marchFIRST. I was foolhardy enough to leave a secure job at Accenture to take over responsibility for leading the west coast strategy practice just prior to the investors taking the company into bankruptcy. The real lesson: It was a truly great company (great clients, great staff, creative thinking) that never needed to fail. A classic example of the loose, undisciplined management you see in so many of these kinds of companies. Great ideas and amazing talent and abysmal execution. And, buyer beware. We are now nearly 14 years into the bankruptcy and it still hasn't been settled. That's what you call financial efficiency ---- for the attorney's involved. Dorothy Moller

Matt Johnson said...

I was lucky enough to be at CKS Partners just as it merged with USWeb in the pre-marchFIRST days. I've never worked at a more fun place, with people more excited to be doing what they were doing, producing really great work. Ah, those were the days!