Into the Blue

A look of apoplexy seizes an IT exec as she answers an urgent call during a meeting. There is a system crash and she must run. “So how long do you think that excuse is going to work?” asks a man in a waiting car. “Hopefully until Labor Day,” she says, blissfully casting off her suit jacket.

Such insouciance would hardly have been associated with the IBM of a decade ago. But during eight years of creating advertising for the technology giant, Ogilvy & Mather, New York, has helped redefine IBM, giving the company a distinct—and far less staid—personality.

The “Labor Day” spot, which breaks later this month, is part of a campaign that won the agency its first Grand Effie, deemed by the New York American Marketing Association to be the most effective campaign of the year. “This is the culmination of an eight-year process, being able to do what IBM hired us for: show that IBM stands for something solid and substantial, and allow us to reposition it as a brand with one voice,” says Chris Wall, senior partner and executive creative director at Ogilvy.

Back in 1993, Big Blue was posting major losses and analysts were predicting the tech titan’s demise. “The IBM brand, though once heroic and famous and incredibly valuable, declined in relevance,” recalls Brian Fetherstonhaugh, the chief operating officer for IBM at Ogilvy & Mather. “IBM was rated the 283rd most valuable brand in the world. In addition to a new-business model and positioning, the brand needed to attract people or it faced going out of business.”

In early 1994, IBM launched a quiet review of its nearly $500 million global account. Until then, the company had used an international roster of 42 agencies. Ogilvy & Mather, promising a “360 degree” approach to the brand and an international network with which to do it, won the business in one of the largest consolidations of its time.

Within the first several months of their relationship, Ogilvy and IBM developed the concept of “Solutions Positioning,” an umbrella term covering IBM’s primary hardware, software and services offerings. At the direction of newly named chairman Lou Gerstner, who had worked with Ogilvy on American Express, IBM would cohesively emphasize those three properties on a global basis.

Ogilvy increased IBM’s TV presence and then devised a distinctive look that would carry the brand through today: the blue letterbox.

Joe Pytka, who had worked on BBDO’s Apple campaign in the early 1990s, was brought in as director and has worked with the campaign ever since. “There are some similarities between our first stuff for IBM and the old Apple stuff,” he says. Both faced similar issues: how to render something technical and complex in an emotional and intelligent way. “We wanted to address problems in a way that’s entertaining to the consumer but also intelligent for the technical person, so they’re not insulted by it,” says Pytka. “That’s the balance we’ve tried to keep all along.”

Pytka devised the blue letterbox somewhat randomly. “I wanted to distance the work from other ads, and, just out of boredom, I put the letterbox on the monitor,” he says. “It made the commercials look a lot more compelling. We decided to use a blue strip, IBM’s color, and it was a go.”

The first campaign, “Solutions for a Small Planet,” began with “Sub titles” in early 1995. The spot featured seniors in mundane situations around the world—a café in Italy, a bazaar in India—talking about the Internet revolution. In another spot, nuns on their way to vespers discuss operating systems and “surfing the Net.” Both spots suggested, if not IBM’s omnipotence, then its “higher understanding” of both old and new through a singular concept: Technology empowers everyone everywhere.

Two years into the agency relationship, IBM’s revenue and stock price were considerably rejuvenated. It was time to write a new chapter: e-business.

At the time, the tech world was focused on browser wars and the novelty of shopping online. “We weren’t going to have sock puppets touting ‘supply-chain management’ or IBM’s other e-business offerings,” says Tom Bagot, senior partner and associate creative director at Ogilvy. Along with Andy Berndt, who shares the same title, Bagot has worked on IBM from the start.

By March 2000, the dot-com bubble was “showing signs of burstage,” says Wall. The cracks appearing in fly-by-night Internet companies presented an opportunity for IBM. “When the dot-com thing came straight up and came straight down, IBM was still on an upward trajectory,” says Wall. “By noting IBM’s emphasis on providing tools to enhance fundamental business operations, that allowed IBM to play to its basic strengths.”

Abby Kohnstamm, svp of marketing for IBM, gave the Ogilvy team a clear directive in early 2001: “I want to own infrastructure this year,” she told Wall.

That meant explaining the importance of infrastructure and then demonstrating why the company was superior in this regard. One ad featured the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the line, “Nice façade. Bad infrastructure,” to convey the warning, “Infrastructure: Sooner or later, it matters.” A TV version, showing two Americans trying to take a photo as the tower crumbles, was pulled after Sept. 11.

Other spots in the series exemplify the more humorous side of the campaign. The punchline came purely by accident. “Hot seat,” “Pep talk” and “Big question” feature a stunned IT department watching its clueless chairman being interviewed on a fictional financial talk show. The chairman stumbles over the word “infrastructure.” “How can he promise to overhaul our infrastructure? He can’t even say it!”

“The actor really couldn’t say the word,” Berndt notes. “Joe even made a video for us called ‘Mr. Pytka’s Neighborhood’ with outtakes of him yelling at the actor. While [the speech problem] wasn’t initially part of the script, it really captured the idea perfectly.”

Research showed that business leaders paid attention to infrastructure only when things went wrong, a finding that became a central idea. In addition to TV, print ads—including a 53-page booklet written by Bagot—explored the issue in greater depth. The ads capitalized on the message that IBM can help prevent such “moments of truth” for businesses. All that was left was making that message accessible.

“We were up and running with the campaign when we decided to dial up infrastructure as an actual word,” Wall says. “We were sort of frightened by it because it is such an awkward, inhuman word. We wanted to humanize this stuff—and we get on the set and our ‘CEO’ couldn’t even pronounce it.”

Late last year, Ogilvy added sports as a competitive metaphor for the business world with the tagline, “E-business is the game. Play to win.” In the first round, a basketball team called Infrastructure and dressed in IBM blue plays against an elbow-jabbing, cheating team called Crash.

“Topics like integration of systems and infrastructure are pretty dry, so you need to be really entertaining to break through,” says Ann Rubin, IBM worldwide program director. “These guys came up with stuff that could work across business units, across geographies.”

Two spots breaking this summer feature fictional executives interviewing musicians to help with a new ad campaign. They ask rappers and “classic rockers” for an upbeat jingle that will soothe the customers who hate them. “No one operator can access our system,” an executive laments in both spots. The artists respond with strained incredulity, “And you think a song can fix that?” An announcer reassures viewers that IBM’s Internet platform, Linux, is “practically bulletproof” and offers easy reliability.

The “Play to win” tagline will continue for the foreseeable future, Rubin says.

Nine months after the first infrastructure campaign began, it had generated $152 million in new-business revenue, according to IBM campaign tracking and sales-force databases, exceeding the targeted $43 million by 354 percent. By last August, IBM had signed nearly 1,700 new contracts from leads attributable to the campaign.

“Ogilvy changed the way we approached advertising,” says Rubin. “We’ve developed a true partnership. The level of trust that exists between IBM and Ogilvy is extremely rare— and, more important, it works.”