Despite trouble in early 2000, McKinney & Silver bands together and finishes first

Last January, Don Maurer was starting to feel a bit like Julius Caesar.

The McKinney & Silver CEO had watched his high-flying new-economy parents, USWeb and CKS, cannibalize each other. One of his signature accounts, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, had left. And the ides of March—in this case, marchFirst, the poster child of dot-com chaos—were fast approaching.

Maurer, 46, aggressive and hyperambitious, had arrived in Raleigh, N.C., in 1996 to lead McKinney back to the cutting edge. Now, with some 150 people counting on him, the soothsayers were issuing dire warnings. So Maurer took on another Shakespearean role—finding method in the madness. His success in that pursuit brought McKinney an unexpectedly good year—good enough to be named Adweek’s Southeast agency of the year.

Flanked by his top brass—executive creative director David Baldwin, media director John Klein, account planner Andrew Delbridge, director of client services Cameron McNaughton and others—Maurer addressed the troops last winter. “I told them we’ve got really tight relationships with our clients,” he recalls. “As long as we’re strong and hold together, it doesn’t matter what happens outside.”

It was a lesson Maurer had to learn for himself. He’d been running the Southeast operations of both McKinney and USWeb/CKS. But then, last spring, the latter merged with Whittman-Hart to form marchFirst, an Internet professional-services company with 10,000 employees in 14 countries and $1 billion in revenue. But McKinney’s new dysfunctional parent crashed spectacularly—its share price dropping from $44 at the launch to just $1 by the end of November.

“We went from 100 mph to ‘Hit the brakes, and let’s put this sucker in reverse!’ ” says Maurer.

Still, none of Maurer’s staffers were let go. They simply soldiered on, sheltered to some degree from marchFirst’s Chicago headquarters. “When you come to a place like Raleigh, there’s a commitment you make,” says Klein. “You’ve got to make your gig work.”

In the 7th floor creative department, Baldwin deconstructed the agency into an idea pool he tapped frequently. A few doors down, group creative director Liz Paradise made sure her people got plenty of “face time,” giving significant creative tasks to young staffers. “Around here, they throw some big bones to the little dogs,” says account supervisor Lauren Hood.

Things were stabilizing. The consistently elegant work for Audi drove brand awareness and brought record sales. By year’s end, the creative teams had amassed more than a dozen national awards.

In February, McKinney was tapped to handle the $30 million advertising rollout of marchFirst itself. That revenue, Maurer insists, continues to flow. “We want to get paid. They want to be treated as a client,” he says.

The shop’s “Upside Down Head” TV spot, playing off the exhibition of the first Cubist painting, articulated marchFirst’s “A new world. A new way” positioning—and was highly regarded despite the company’s misfortunes.

In April, McKinney won the $10 million account of Netfolio, an online service for custom designing mutual funds. (No work has launched yet.) A month later, it beat out The Martin Agency for Kayser-Roth’s $15 million No Nonsense hosiery account.

Maurer then pulled out all the stops in winning the $15 million Krystal fast-food chain account in a six-week review. The shop ordered in 400 hamburgers from the nearest Krystal franchise, 170 miles away in Charlotte, and staffers Jennifer Johnston and Ken Marcus were named Krystal “king and queen” at a pre-pitch pep rally.

The capper came in July, when McKinney won the $80 million business of high-profile telecom Nextlink (now XO Communications) in a review against Mullen, J. Walter Thompson and Grey Worldwide.

By the end of 2000, Maurer was grateful for a period of relative calm. To be or not to be was no longer the top question at marchFirst, which attracted a $150 million investment to stay in business (bringing at least a temporary measure of stability). At McKinney, everyone’s stock options may have turned into Monopoly money, but the shop had seen revenue jump 15 percent over the year to $26 million and was in the finals of Revlon’s $100 million search.

Unlike most Shakespearean heroes, Maurer had averted tragedy. “Krystal, XO and our other successes kind of minimized the marchFirst madness,” he says. “After a while, it wasn’t so mad.”