Corporate image

There was that time a prospective client had a gallbladder attack in the middle of a pitch. “He turned green,” says chairman Allen Kay, “and as he was going into the ambulance we were shouting, ‘We have one more reel to show you!'” During a presentation to another prospect, the chairman fell asleep. “He was actually snoring,” Kay reports. The agency landed the account anyway.
Then there was the all-important pitch in March for the $5-million-plus account for IBM’s Pennant Systems division, which sells mid-range and high-end printers to businesses. On the day of the final presentation, creative director Neil Leinwohl and director of client services Joe Palladino were home with the flu. In a move that is already agency legend, the Korey, Kay team created cutouts of their missing colleagues and sat them at the conference table. “We introduced them as though they were there,” recounts Kay. “To us it seemed like the natural thing to do. That’s what we do and we pray that people will understand. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.” The folks at Pennant understood: Korey Kay got the business.
If Kay’s tales of snafus aren’t enough, he and Leinwohl demonstrate the agency tradition on the day they are scheduled to recreate the Pennant pitch. The two arrive at the agency’s lower Fifth Avenue office by 8 on a humid June morning, before the building’s ventilation system kicks in. The conference room, where they will recreate the pitch they gave to Pennant, is like a sauna, and both are complaining about the heat. While Leinwohl sips on a Diet Coke, Kay, looking crisp in his suit, dress shirt and tie despite the temperature, offers some Perrier–only to return five minutes later apologizing that he has none. When he tries to start the Pennant presentation, the VCR won’t work. For the next 10 minutes he fiddles helplessly with the machine, the remote control and the batteries. Finally the video comes up, but without sound. “No batteries, no Perrier, no sound. This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” he mutters. “Do you lip-read? Technology. I can sell it, I just can’t do it.”
Leinwohl, who has been sitting quietly at the table (“Neil says little, but thinks big thoughts,” explains Kay), chuckles to himself as Kay fumbles. “This is exactly the presentation we gave IBM,” he deadpans.
When the machinery finally works, the agency reel reveals the same sense of humor as Kay’s anecdotes do, most pointedly in the famous Xerox ads from the ’70s, which Kay and Leinwohl created while at Needham, Harper & Steers. By humanizing the copying and computer technologies then emerging, the ads helped reinforce Xerox as a household name. It was also on the Xerox account that both executives formed their approach to corporate advertising and to selling technology. The agency doesn’t distinguish between product ads and corporate image ads. “The best corporate commercial is really a great product commercial,” says Kay. “If you do a product commercial that is schlocky, it says that your company is schlocky.”
It also turns out that Bill Harrison, Pennant Systems director of communications, “was a student of Xerox advertising,” says Kay. “He knew every commercial we had ever done.” And because these days Xerox is Pennant’s chief competitor in the high-end printing business (along with Siemen’s Nixdorf Printing Systems and Kodak), Korey, Kay was also top of mind with Clair Thain, IBM advertising and promotion director. Neither Korey, Kay nor Pennant will describe the new campaign in specifics, but they admit the agency confronts a selling job similar to the one it faced with Xerox more than 20 years ago: establishing a brand while trying to sell a potentially confusing technical product.
The advertising for Pennant will probably be closely watched as an indication of the marketing direction the newly independent Baby Blues will take. Before it was spun off as a separate IBM business group in December 1991, Pennant was a “listless, slowly dying organization,” according to a report from Electronic Output Strategies, a research firm. Since then, it’s become “a solid model for the prototypical independent IBM operating group,” the EOS report continued, claiming that Pennant can be the leader in the $36-billion worldwide printing market. Korey, Kay’s job is to help ensure that happens.
Kay and Leinwohl have moved out of the dark, hot conference room into a bright and airy office where a table is set with a lox-and-bagets spread. Leinwohl picks at a plain, dry bagel and washes it down with his Diet Coke; Kay is busy pulling out the doughy innards of his bagel before piling it with cream cheese, tomatoes, onions and lox. At Xerox, Kay explains between bites, they developed something called “humanology–technology not for technology’s sake, but for people’s sake” in their approach to advertising technical products. That credo, says Kay, was employed on the Pennant account as well to focus the ads on the benefits of the equipment rather than on the equipment itself.
With Pennant, as with Xerox, the team’s mission is to establish the brand name and sell high-tech gear that is not always easy to explain. The objective, says Leinwohl in his laconic way, “is to establish Pennant as the leader in electronic printing. That’s about it.”
Kay and Leinwohl say Pennant already knew the course it wanted to take in its advertising. “Pennant poured out their heart and soul to us. They knew what they wanted to communicate. But they asked our opinion and are taking a lot of marketing counsel from us. We saw our job as helping them to communicate their message.”
Leinwohl says that openness began with the pitch, when the company provided them with a stack of information about the industry and about Pennant, including internal newsletters that reported on “success stories” of companies that have used Pennant printers and saved money. “A lot of our ads for the presentation talked about that,” says Leinwohl.
Once they had the account, the agency went into high gear, traveling to IBM offices in Boulder, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and Norwalk, Conn., to see the equipment and talk to employees. The creative team also conducted one-on-one interviews with Pennant customers and non-customers. “We found out Pennant had a lot to sell, and we found out that with non-customers there was a lot of ignorance–they didn’t know Pennant was there or what it offered. It was clear what the advertising had to do. We had to make a mark for this company and really put them on the map.”
Pennant told the agency that it wanted its advertising to be “aggressive but not obnoxious,” according to Kay. “The way you do that,” he says, “is to sell hard, but in a soft way. You notice that our advertising has a very soft touch. What we try to do with the companies we deal with is to make them approachable to their audience so that people will want to do business with them. Until they actually work with your company, your advertising is your company.”
The Pennant ads. which will appear in trade and targeted consumer publications, appeal to a broad range of people and use humor to make their points, according to Leinwohl, who Kay calls “the genius” behind them. “It’s the people at the top of the company who say yes or no, and they may not even understand the machinery,” Leinwohl says. “If you can put a smile on the advertising, some kind of humor, that appeals to everybody. You’re forced into these ads. You’ll actually have to stop and read the copy.”
It’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to wade through copy designed to sell a high-end printer. But Kay draws a distinction between technology and technical. “We give them just enough information to get the phone to ring,” he says. “In the collateral material we do, we get as technical as you can get. Einstein would have trouble getting through this.” But the ads, he says, force the target to see the product from a totally different angle. People they spoke to while doing research told them, “Show me something I haven’t seen before. Tell me something I haven’t heard before.”
If they pull it off it will be a brilliant stroke, since they’re selling a piece of a company that was known for years as one the most conservative, slow-moving behemoths in American business. But Kay and Leinwohl say the folks at Big Blue are adopting an entrepreneurial spirit and that new chairman Louis Gerstner Jr. is “rewriting the book. We have the best of both worlds,” says Kay. “We have a small division that is very nimble and customer focused, and the backing of IBM.”
IBM’s selection of the freewheeling Korey, Kay & Partners may tell most about its intentions. “We’re very emotional kind of people,” says Kay. “A lot of what drives us is our intuition, and then we check the facts. We don’t sell monoliths. We sell benefits.”
One of the most talked-about exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair belonged to AT&T, where the telephone monopoly demonstrated the future of communications technologies. And one of the most exciting gadgets on display was the videophone. Twenty years later, the public is still waiting for the videophone–and people haven’t quite forgiven old Ma Bell for the delay.
“AT&T got burned in the past with promises,” admits Mark Ryan, associate director of creative services at Ayer. That lesson was not lost on the Ayer creative team when it began work on the latest AT&T corporate advertisements. “You Will,” the campaign which broke in April, is designed to impress AT&T’s 18-34-year-old target market with all the not-so-futuristic gadgetry the telecommunications giant swears will be on the market within the next five years.
For the members of the fortysomething creative team, the campaign harkened back to the telephone company they grew up with. Back then AT&T was, as senior copywriter Gordon Hasse says, “an incredibly wonderful, almost mythic company,” whose Bell Laboratories were “bigger than life,” the wellspring of technological advances ranging from television to stereo sound to the transistor that started the first wave of the electronic revolution. As Hasse points out, “For the last 30 years, AT&T has averaged a patent every working day.”
But in the years since divestiture and the resulting ultra-competitive long-distance phone wars, mighty AT&T has been reduced–particularly in the eyes of the younger consumers–to just another carrier touting IOW rates. “It was like a boxer in a ring not throwing a punch,” says Nick Scordato, creative supervisor. “What these corporate ads let AT&T do is say, ~Hey, we’re the guys who invented the telephone, for God’s sake!'”
Unlike ads promoting services or rates, a corporate campaign like this allows AT&T and its agency to take the high road. Explains Ryan, “The long-distance business is so competitive, what little advantage you have has to be advertised. This campaign sets the table for communicating things other than long distance.”
At Ayer’s Manhattan headquarters, on the 35th floor of the Worldwide Plaza at Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, it is easy to see why the agency and its creatives make a good match with the venerable AT&T. Staid but sleek, the offices are decorated in severe grays, black and chrome, reminding visitors that Ayer shares its client’s corporate culture. The same could be said for the AT&T creative team. In Scordato’s office, where he and Hasse have met to discuss the AT&T campaign, the same gray tones predominate, with only a few hints of the creativity that drives their business–a poster bearing the “You Will” AT&T tag, a collection of deodorant brands, from Ayer clients Mitchum and Dry Idea, arrayed on a shelf, and the inevitable video monitor and tape player on a cart.
Despite its futuristic message, the AT&T campaign was also an exercise in creative restraint. In their many trips to Bell Labs, team members were introduced to scientists–including the Nobel Prize-winning head of the lab, Arno Penzias–who wowed them with cutting-edge technologies. But sensitive to the public backlash that resulted from over-promising in the past, AT&T cautioned the team not to get too wild in the campaign. The result w as that virtual reality, voice translations and airplane videophones were deemed too far out to risk including.
Ultimately, Ayer created a set of four soothing, lyrical ads–directed by David Fincher (Aliens 3) and narrated by Tom Selleck–that promise viewer s a world in which mothers will tuck their babies into bed via public videophones, writers will scribble notes and then casually fax them from the beach, drivers will pay their tolls without stopping at the tollbooth, and people, will unlock door s with the sound of their voice.
The team deliberately made this future world non-threatening. In discussions the creative team concluded, “If the future is staying at home and interacting with a screen of any kind that replaces human contact–nobody is interested in that future,” says director of commercial production Gaston Braun in his French accent.
Instead the campaign portrays technology as a kind of social lubricant that improves the quality of life. No lonely couch potatoes here. Everyone in these ads inter acts with technology and people at the same time. Three girls order concert tickets from a cash machine; groups of kids from different parts of the country tune into an education network to hear the same lesson on jazz; a man uses a smart car d at a busy urban medical center to learn his wife’s medical condition.
The future portrayed in the campaign is one that looks very similar to the present, with the high-tech gear subtly integrated in people’s lives. “We wanted the technology to be as seamless as possible, not unlike the way we relate to the telephone today,” says Hasse. “There is no ~Aha!’ No sense that these people are awed by this technology.”
This is accomplished with artful cues in props and wardrobe. In one vignette a barefooted businessman holds a video conference from a weathered beach gazebo with peeling paint. An old-fashioned fan runs behind the conference phone. In the concert-ticket scene, the machine is built onto a familiar, older building “instead of some pie-in-the-sky kiosk” as Scordato says. In the videophone scene, the baby instantly recognizes his mom and instinctively moves toward her image. (The scene was a favorite of Fincher, inspired by his own Aliens 3, in which Sigourney Weaver’s baby recognizes her on the big screen and moves toward her, arms outstretched.)
At the same time, details such as funky skull caps, half gloves, loose-fitting clothes and other fashion oddities suggest that these scenes are taking place at a time other than now. Selleck’s opening “Have you ever . . .” questions, which become a kind of mantra, background music complete with swooping church-like vocals, and the final tagline firmly establish the future tense of the world featured in the ads.
Says Scordato, “The campaign is an incredible carrot dangler.” Except that this time, he adds reassuringly, “the payoff is that you can have it.” Soon.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)