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Adjust amid withering

Scott Leith (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) -- In the drama of the dot-com world, Patrick Peyer was a character straight from central casting.

Young and ambitious, he left a career at a traditional public relations agency in September to take a job at 360i.com, a 2-year-old Atlanta shop that specialized in tech accounts.

360i.com's setting was a loft-like environment in an out-of-the-way strip of cool offices in northeast Atlanta, far from the downtown building where Peyer once worked for the local branch of Edelman Public Relations.

The adventure lasted just four months. Peyer, 26, was thrown out of work shortly before Christmas. His wife has a good job, so he has given up on the job market for now in favor of focusing on selling his own artwork.

"All in all, I'm glad that I made the move, because it was valuable experience," Peyer said. "I'm trying to look at my stint with 360i.com as a four-month training seminar that paid me, instead of me paying for it."

A legion of staffers like Peyer -- those who provided dot-com support services such as advertising, Web site design, marketing and public relations -- are out of work. Many have stayed on the sidelines while those with hard-core tech skills have found new jobs.

The change in the marketplace was harsh for those who worked at Atlanta businesses with names like 360i.com, Voltage Factory and Abovo Marketing. Many, especially the youngest ones, had never known the sting of bad times before being fired.

Besides that, they were cast into a market already filled with expatriates from big Internet consultancies such as iXL Enterprises, MarchFirst and Organic.

Many of these job seekers would like to find work at places that were deemed rather unhip not long ago. Atlanta ad agency WestWayne, for example, was worried about being able to find talent as it watched tech agencies offer big salaries.

"It was really concerning to all of us in the advertising business," said agency President Jeff Johnson.

Now the job seekers are back.

Ad industry recruiter Michael Palma, head of Creative Search in Atlanta, said many dot-commers are trying to get back into traditional agencies.

"A year ago, people were asking, 'Are ad agencies necessary?'" Palma said.

Better salaries were a key part of the temptation to join unproven tech operations. Palma said traditional agencies are still paying similar amounts to last year, so many former tech staffers are stepping down to lower salaries.

Taken one at a time, the layoff totals can seem small. 360i.com, Peyer's old employer, has 32 workers after peaking at about 50, said Bryan Kujawski, the agency's co-president and director of account management.

But little cuts tend to add up, and observers don't see good times ahead for those involved in advertising for dot-com firms. Prudential Securities estimates such ad spending reached $6.1 billion in 2000 but will decline 30 percent to $4.3 billion this year.

Prudential is more bullish about online advertising overall, estimating a 33 percent jump for 2001 to a total of $10.7 billion.

The sector has clearly changed from a time when dot-coms had plenty of cash to toss into advertising, marketing and public relations. Guy Tucker, an Atlanta headhunter and consultant in the ad business, views the shakeout as a correction of a wacky market.

"There was too much money and not enough good thinking," Tucker said.

In some cases, people who might not have found jobs in normal times were able to get positions, Tucker said. In other situations, good workers were put in bad environments.

And for many companies, business simply dried up.

"It's been stressful for everybody," said Kujawski of 360i.com. He said new-business leads have been on an uptick this year after dwindling in late 2000.

For job seekers, this may be a tough year for traditional advertising and public relations shops, not to mention the survivors in the tech sector.

Amy Hoover, a recruiter at Atlanta's Talent Zoo, said the market for jobs at traditional ad agencies isn't very strong at the moment, magnifying the problem for those who are trying to find work outside of tech.

The situation isn't unique to Atlanta, so those without jobs have few options to move elsewhere.

"Every other market is like this," Hoover said. "San Francisco is a nightmare right now."

Whether the worst is over is also unclear. Exile on Seventh, a San Francisco-based shop with an office in Atlanta, had long avoided cutting staff. That changed in early February, when the Atlanta office eliminated a couple of positions.

"We're still weathering this really well," said Tom Lynch, general manager of Exile on Seventh in Atlanta. Lynch said resumes are continuing to roll in, even though the firm isn't hiring.

Peyer is coping because his wife, Holly, has a stable job. Her position is in advertising but at a more traditional Atlanta agency.

"I have decided to focus on my art and put my job search on the back burner till the market turns around some," Peyer said. "Since my layoff, I have had more time to create and distribute my pieces. Now, four local art stores are displaying my work."

At Peyer's old employer, Kujawski said 360i has regrouped and is optimistic, despite last year's upheaval.

"It's a bit Darwinian," he said. "You come through, and the strong survive."

(c) 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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