The Born Identity

Tails between their legs, agencies drop those silly names

Back in March 2000, I was privy to a pre-bubble-burst cab-ride conversation between a pair of Internet entrepreneurs. The topic at hand: a name change for their company. Their reason? Pure boredom.

That kind of whimsy, along with a desire to be in vogue, was all the rage at ad agencies, too— particularly those involved with Web advertising. Their names were suddenly swimming in a sea of symbols, numbers and nonsensical words with arbitrary capitalizations. Having a name like eyescream, Xceed or c2o Interactive Architects was, well, where it was @.

But fads fade fast, and this one has gone the way of black-rimmed glasses. Now we’re seeing many of the survivors retreat to their given names.

The latest example is Siegel & Gale. The brand consultancy shortened its name three years ago to Siegelgale, to match its URL and show it was hip to interactive media. Two weeks ago, after being bought by Omnicom, it reverted to the original 34-year-old name. “It goes back to the company’s heritage with a name that frankly is easier to say, spell and remember,” says president and CEO Duncan Pollock.

It strikes me as funny that a branding expert would tinker with one of its core assets in the first place. But take heart, Siegelgale or Siegel & Gale, you’re not alone.

Remember Wunderman Cato Johnson’s ill-fated name change? In February 2000, Young & Rubicam’s marketing services arm adopted the modern-sounding name Impiric to underscore its interactive marketing services, only to take back Wunderman less than 16 months later. Even J. Walter Thompson got into the act, renaming its San Francisco office JWT & Tonic in 2001, a year after buying i-shop Tonic 360. Late last year, the name was amended to JWT SF.

In a way, you can’t blame them. They were just trying to keep up with the Joneses (though, of course, no Web firm worth its salt in 1999 would have put up with a name as common as Jones).

My question is, Did anyone wonder how these funky names would sound a few years down the road? Many of them feel dated now, and some sound downright silly. Gr8 sounds like an Avril Lavigne song written by Tony the Tiger. SixtyFootSpider could be a nightmare nursery rhyme. (Neither of those shops has to worry about staying power, however: The former closed in 2001; the latter was absorbed by Tribal DDB that same year.)

Many i-shops are also removing anything dot-com from their names—a smart move, considering the beating Internet companies took following the age of overindulgence. Remember when Organic was Organic Online, and Euro RSCG Circle was circle.com?

Then there’s what I call the Prodigal Son Phenomenon. After the crash, the digital arms of many general agencies gave their “serious” parents newfound respect. For instance, BBDO Interactive, which adopted the name @tmosphere in 1999, quietly renamed itself AtmosphereBBDO last year to play up its family ties.

And let’s not forget marchFirst (yes, lowercase m, uppercase F), a company named for the official merger date of USWeb/CKS and Whittman-Hart. That may have seemed clever at the time, but in the end it served as a painful reminder that the company barely made it past its first birthday before going bankrupt.

Though the name died, some of marchFirst’s assets still exist as part of SBI and Co. The e-business rollup has served as a retirement home for other badly named i-shop brands, including Scient and, most recently, Razorfish. As the legend goes, Razorfish founders Jeff Dachis and Craig Kanarick arrived at that name by stabbing at two random entries in a dictionary.

Whatever happened to putting your name on the door? I guess it’s hard to imagine staffers at an agency called Dachis & Kanarick carousing at a party with belly dancers, transvestites and White Castle hamburgers. Of course, those kinds of parties are a thing of the past now, too.