Commentary

IBM and Cisco: A Headache for O&M?

Two great tech behemoths have new ad campaigns, both of which are great joys to watch. IBM’s boardroom-based satires of technology pitches works on many levels, and Cisco’s campaign brings the company back to reality, stressing product benefits like money savings rather than esoteric promises of future unspecified abilities. Both campaigns spring from the head of New York ad firm Ogilvy & Mather, but rather than having one idea spring Athena-like from the head of Zeus, O&M gave birth to twins, and it’s not at all certain that they won’t fight amongst one another. This could add up to a headache for the venerable ad firm.

In an unusually public tiff last summer, the incoming new head of Cisco’s advertising reversed the company’s choice of a new ad agency and insisted they choose O&M instead. Having come from IBM, she hoped to get the type of advertising she enjoyed previously. Well, she did, and one wonders if she expected the messaging to be quite so literally similar.

Cisco’s previous campaigns – launched in the boom years – seemed to be geared toward building high expectations among investors, rather than selling anything to people doing practical IT work. Even during a time in which reality seemed to be suspended, the name of the last campaign: “Discover All That’s Possible on the Internet” seemed over-the-top. This campaign was yanked when investors began to discover that one of the things possible on the Internet was that their capital could be reduced by 90 percent.

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So this new campaign seems particularly appropriate, trying to position Cisco as the company bringing real benefits to IT organizations – ones that same real money rather than provide pie-in-the-sky benefits.

One ad shows an executive looking for cost savings by fiddling with the company’s product – in this case taking out one olive from each of their olive jars. The first part of the ad shares a dream-like quality with the old ads of the Internet boom years, showing an aspirational quest to seek benefits and the status that comes with them. But then the punch line comes, deflating this silliness: a mailroom clerk happens to mention that the new phone system is saving a million dollars.

The IBM campaign tries to say the same message: this company will provide real benefits and get work done, rather than sell pie-in-the-sky aspirations. It just says it in a different way. Fantastical products like pixie dust are pushed on gullible senior executives in a boardroom setting by wily and sun-starved geeks. The message: there is no pixie dust. Lower your expectations, and buy IBM.

The great risk of the IBM campaign is that IT managers will recognize just how they’re being portrayed here to their senior executives: as, well, charlatans. This will play wonderfully in boardrooms, where previous promises have come short due to unknowable factors, some of which appear in the ad campaign (my favorite: “adaptors.”) But that might cut a little close to the bone for the chief technology officer who now is portrayed as selling snake oil. Sure, no one got fired for buying IBM, but then again, no one used to get insulted either. This risk taking is refreshing, especially coming from IBM, and O&M deserves kudos for tricking the client into rolling the dice.

More questionable, though, is whether or not two giant tech companies can share the same message coming from the same ad firm, delivered at the same time. We can hope that the minds of the account planners at O&M aren’t seized on this idea, like an engine piston seized against the walls of the cylinder: time to buy a new engine. Granted, these messages come across in different ways, but inevitably one of the clients – if not both – will begin to wonder if they’re really getting the first crack at the best ideas, or merely the leavings from the “competing” campaign.

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