Ad men and mad men - the variable advertising track record of technology firms

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan September 22, 2014
Apple's U2 humiliation goes on as NetSuite gets sassy with its advertising, but how would the Mad Men of Madison Avenue rate most technology firms adverts?

I could scarcely believe my eyes the other night. There I was, watching a bit of TV, not really paying an enormous amount of attention when up it came. An Apple advert. Nothing particuarly unusual in that of course, especially since there’s a new phone out (got it, love it!) and a watch (still want!) to come.

But this ad was for the free download of the U2 album. Yes, that U2 album. The one that’s caused so much fuss and anger among the Apple faithful that the firm’s had to offer up a ‘punch and delete’ option.

So not only did Apple pay a reputed $100 million for the right to give its customers an unwanted gift and end up facing down a PR storm as a result, it’s now paying heaven alone knows how much to advertise that self-same unwanted gift to millions of people who just want to watch Downton Abbey! This baby was really well thought through, huh?

But it did turn my mind to thinking about tech firms and mainstream advertising. One of things that always reminds me I’m in San Francisco - apart from the big bridge! - is checking out the billboard advertising on the route in from the airport. These range from familiar companies that I recognise to start-ups and smaller firms that have yet to make their presence felt outside of the USA.

But then you just don’t really get the same exposure for tech firms outside of airports and train stations in other parts of the world. Airport lounges are of course prime real estate when it comes to any form of business and tech firms are no exception. Infor CEO Charles Phillips last year explained that his firm’s bid to increase its brand recognition was heavily contingent on airport lounge exposure, a lesson that the likes of Oracle and SAP learned a long time ago.

Those sort of adverts tend to be of the ‘XYZ customer runs on ABC software - why don’t you?’ variety. Simple, straightforward, understandable on the run for the plane in nature. They do rather make you yearn for the more colorful efforst that we’ve seen in the past.

My favorite billboard - if only for the politics behind it and the out-of-control ego trip that led to it - remains the one at the turn-off to Oracle HQ in Redwood Shores. This was bought up back in 1997 by Informix Software, then kidding itself - and the financial markets! - that it was about to topple Oracle from its throne. So it rented the billboard outside the Oracle building and stuck up a poster saying:


Oh how we laughed - although Informix's own later extinction event proved the 'he who laughs last' maxim.

Not for long you didn't...

Oracle hit back with its own Highway 101 billboard to expose Informix’s legal action against programmers poached from it to move to Oracle. It read:

Informix: Hiring lawyers experienced in suing programmers.
Oracle: Hiring experienced programmers.
A public service from Oracle Corporation.

And if anyone thinks such jolly japes are a thing of the past, think again. An SAP HANA billboard turned up too conveniently close for comfort to Oracle, although unlikely to distract Larry Ellison on the days he showed up at the office.

Old school

Still, all’s fair in love and war and frankly I miss the rumbunctious nature of it all. That said, I detect a hint of the ‘derring do’ approach to advertising in NetSuite’s current campaign against SAP in the Wall Street Journal which suggests anyone installing SAP should be fired!

CEO Zach Nelson is certainly keen to make sure it gets noticed in Walldorf!

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 10.58.35

As well he might of course, as a 15 day campaign in the Wall Street Journal isn’t going to come cheap! That said, it’s an interesting - and to my mind, welcome - bit of marketing sabre-rattling of old school Oracle variety  (one of Nelson’s alma maters of course).

You’ve got to be careful with this sort of advertising of course as Microsoft found to its cost when it ran ads featuring Bernard, a seemingly unhappy customer who found himself locked in.


As these ads ran around the time of Dreamforce in 2010, CEO Marc Benioff trumped the Microsoft mischief makers by bringing ‘Bernard’ on stage and getting him to come back into the cloudy fold in front of a cheering crowd. Microsoft’s use of a stock shot male model backfired badly/splendidly, depending on your point of view.

As another graduate of the Ellison school of marketing, Benioff pulled his own advertising surprise out of the hat with a TV ad during the 2011 SuperBowl. Now, these are of course traditionally the most expensive ad slots of the US TV calendar, with 30 second slots going for around $3 million that year.

So there’s a strong need to balance the massive exposure on offer with the ROI you’re going to get. The big question in this case was simply how many people were even going to recognize what Chatter was or did in the 26 second ad, written and directed by musician Will.I.Am.

Did it work?  Well it got  lots of headlines and attention at the time, which would have delivered a knock-on benefit of sorts, but whether the actual ad delivered on the day…let’s just say, it’s an experiment that hasn’t been repeated!

Not that didn’t have noble precedents for this move. The most famous - and the most effective - tech ad in history aired during SuperBowl 1984 when Apple introduced us to the Macintosh computer and the long journey to the iPhone and the Watch (still wanting!) began.

A far cry from unwanted U2 albums, innit?

My take

Don Draper would never have let them run that U2 ad!


Disclosure: at time of writing, Infor, Oracle, NetSuite, and SAP are all premier partners of diginomica.

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