Ad Report Card: Huh Inc.

One of the indirect contributions that the Internet has made to American discourse is the large preponderance of completely inexplicable advertisements. Whether it’s because eye-catching obscurity is a good way to stand out or because their actual business is too difficult to explain or because they simply have no idea what they’re doing, many Web companies seem to consciously avoid even hinting as to what their product (or “solution”) might be. An example is the recent ad campaign of a company called MarchFirst–technically it’s marchFIRST, consistent with the attention-getting strategy of using Joycean capitalization and punctuation, but I don’t think anyone is really obliged to go along with such foolishness. I’ll explain what MarchFirst is in a moment. For now, suffice it to say that the firm has been running print ads and TV spots on the theme of “being first”–for example, a print ad might feature a shot of fanatic teen-agers and the words “First Rock Star.” Or there’s this TV spot on an art exhibit, which you can view on the Web site.

The ad: It’s set in an art gallery, shot from the point of view of a painting. An avant-garde painting. Onlookers opine (“C’est fantastique!” “C’est terrible!“), cover it up, laugh, squabble, and generally can’t stop looking at the thing. Finally, alone in the gallery at night, a cleaning woman tilts it at an angle and nods. Type comes up: “The first Cubist exhibition. Here’s to being first.” She turns away to mop. The spot fades to black and ends with more type: “A New World, A New Way.”

What it might mean: We’re an innovative company? We think “outside the box”? We’re inventors? We’re artists? We have some sort of technology that represents a breakthrough on a par with Cubism? We’re French? We’re first at … something?

What it’s supposed to mean: MarchFirst is a consulting firm. Surprised? Actually I’m sure the MarchFirsters would say they are more than that: The company, formed by the merger of USWeb/CKS Group (an “Internet-focused services firm”) with Whittman-Hart (“a leading provider of e-business solutions”), launched in this form on March 1, 2000. Its Web site describes the company as “the only Internet professional services firm that combines the disciplines needed to compete and win in the new economy.” It’s not clear what those disciplines are, but they seem to involve “multidisciplinary expertise,” as well as 9,000 employees. Whatever.

The grade: This campaign will reportedly cost $50 million, and its goal seems to boil down to simple name awareness. I suppose that when it is all over, significantly more people will be vaguely familiar with the name MarchFirst than were before. I find the “Cubist” spot to be mildly entertaining and certainly well-produced. But I can’t imagine that many people will find it interesting enough to actually go out and research what the hell MarchFirst is–I mean, I did, but this is my job. Sort of. Anyway, I’m giving the ad a C-. It’s a “New World,” I guess, but most ads still work better when they admit what they’re selling.