Nov 12

Winning their hearts with Steve Ballmer

Would you buy a phone if it were endorsed by Barack Obama? Lady Gaga? Ben Affleck?

How about Steve Ballmer?

I’m still having nightmares over this one. If you’d asked me weeks ago to guess who might be the “celebrity” voice in a Windows Phone ad, I can guarantee I’d never have guessed Ballmer.

That’s because there are blatantly obvious reasons not to go that route. Though I know people who have personal experience with Ballmer and swear that he’s a brilliant man, his public persona is what it is. And it isn’t all that appealing.

Putting a CEO out there like this isn’t something that’s done lightly. It normally involves a spirited debate between client and agency.

How likable is the guy? How believable is he? Will viewers identify with him? Will they even like him?

Even when you get past those issues, there remain the production details. You need a great script. You need to figure out how much of the CEO you actually want to see or hear.

In this case, the responsible parties obviously decided that they’d go for Ballmer’s personality, but downplay his physical being. At least some degree of sanity prevailed.

But the fact is, simply by sticking your CEO in a commercial, you’re communicating things you may not want to communicate. Many take it to mean “situation critical.”

Interestingly, there is a parallel in the Steve Jobs world from the days of NeXT. Following the NeXT Computer’s mixed reception, Steve was introducing the smaller and more affordable NeXTstation. This was a super-critical moment. NeXT desperately needed a hit to remain viable. So the agency proposed to use every available weapon — including Steve Jobs. We put him on the cover of the launch brochure.

Steve was hesitant. He thought it might make NeXT look desperate, though he ultimately went along with it.

(Update: Steve also declined to use his own voice track for the “Think different” launch commercial — even though we had recorded him and tried to convince him to use that version. He did not want to be a distraction from the message of the ad.)

I’m sure they had similar discussions regarding the use of Ballmer. But there is a bit of a difference between the public perceptions of Steve Jobs back then and Steve Ballmer today.

The most convincing argument in favor of Ballmer is the PC marketshare. 90% of the world uses Windows computers, and obviously PC people would be a juicy target for selling a Windows phone.

Unfortunately, this is the triumph of logic over creativity. No amount of logic can turn Ballmer into a TV personality. I also seriously wonder what percentage of PC users have any love for Ballmer, since Microsoft has fallen so far behind in phones and tablets on his watch.

To the many who feel that Ballmer has dragged the company down, this spot ends up saying “Hey look, I finally got one right.”

There are only two things for a viewer to appreciate in this spot. One is the interface-formerly-known-as-Metro. That’s all we see throughout the entire ad. The other is the glimpse inside Steve Ballmer’s world — demonstrating that he’s just a regular guy getting advice from friends and family, including Bill Gates.

If the tiled interface is enough to drive your phone decision, then this is enough of a commercial.

If you’re one of those who has trouble stomaching Ballmer, you’ll be wincing as you try to absorb what Windows Phone is bringing to the party.

I had absolutely no memory that Ballmer had appeared in a Microsoft commercial once before, way back in the days of Windows 1.0. In the following spot, Ballmer plays the exaggerated role of late-night pitchman. Unfortunately, that isn’t all that far off from the real Ballmer…

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  • Dmitri

    I can totally believe that Ballmer is, in the right circumstances, a brilliant guy. Leading MS is one of those things that is harder than it looks, I have no doubt. But, like you Ken, I don’t see the benefit to having him do their commercial. Most people don’t know who he is. Many do, and don’t like him. Those who love him probably already have their windows phone.

    As is so often the case, the decisions at MS are puzzling to me.

  • Jurassic

    This is an example of Ballmer’s inflated ego eclipsing rationality.

  • Ralph Jones

    The man (seriously) gives me the willys.
    Brilliant? Maybe. Clueless? Definitely.

    Remember his interview on how the iPhone was going to bomb? The one that’s now worth more than ALL of his company?

    He should stay off stages. And definitely out of commercials.
    (I’ll never get his monkeyboy dance out of my head)

  • Todd Schnick

    i’d love to be a fly on the wall observing the client/agency debates on this ad….

  • TomCross

    Quick thoughts:

    1.Windows finally has a phone that can do the basics and that’s all the ad showed.

    2.Windows seems to be discovering themselves. They now have an OS that visually represents to name of their OS and it seems a nice fit for them. Why didn’t they come up with this a decade ago?

    3.Steve Ballmer is brilliant? Where’s that evidence? Steve Jobs never said anything complicated or explained anything complicated and I think he’s the most brilliant person in the world, still to this day no one has trumped his status.

    4.Windows OS is going to have a major flaw throughout its life cycle. We saw it on stage when that Ballerina grabbed another Surface. So we know everyone will need at least 2. Do they wirelessly sync like iPhones & iPads?

    5.I noticed they didn’t say Steve Ballmers phone. So those who don’t know him but have heard Steve’s name will think its Job’s and not Ballmer. Seems like a political campaign with a bit of “I’m a pc” intertwined.

    6.Steve Ballmer is brilliant?

  • Steve Jobs declined to take the Apple ad “Think Different” with his voice in it and took the version not narrated by him.

  • qka

    Steve Ballmer in an ad? He makes Frank Perdue, the pioneer CEO-as-spokesman, look handsome!

    BTW, IIRC, the Windows 1.0 “ad” was created as an in house novelty, and was not for public use.

  • gkotsis

    there is also this Windows 95 ad, starring Steve and Bill Gates.

    I must admit that I kind of like it

  • ksegall

    Thanks, I hadn’t seen that one. Much better.

  • ksegall

    I’m willing to believe this ad never aired, but I can find no information by Googling. Every article I’ve found refers to it as “an old Windows ad” or “a commercial that aired in 1985.” Just curious where your info comes from.

  • ksegall

    True. How silly of me not to cite that example. (Especially since I was one of the guys who tried to talk Steve Jobs into using his voice.) I will amend the article.

  • ksegall

    Just to clarify: that wasn’t me who said Ballmer was brilliant! I was quoting others. Whether or not he is a smart guy behind closed doors, he has presided over some of the biggest lapses in Microsoft history. Hard to imagine others keeping their jobs after such a performance.

  • Greg

    Ballmer is one of those unfortunate people in life that is just unlikeable, and my guess is, he knows it, but can’t really acknowledge or accept it. I always feel somewhat uncomfortable just watching him, and would guess I’m not alone. He may indeed be smart, but he just exudes “loser”.
    I’ve often thought that if Microsoft had invented the iphone, and Ballmer had been the one to introduce it, it would have been a failure.
    I don’t think history will treat him kindly.

  • mark

    … Ken, you must be kidding, right?

  • ksegall

    I’m talking about 1995 standards, and in comparison to the god-awful Windows 1.0 spot. But I certainly wouldn’t put it on my showreel.

  • TomCross

    That brilliant comment was meant for the other replies. But speaking of, when ads are made they have coaches and lots of constructive criticism before something awful like that ad was made, right? Or is his ego that really too big for that?

  • I loathe ballmer, and I don’t think he’s too bright, but I like this ad.

    Seriously, this is probably the first ad from Microsoft I actually like. From the low point of Bill Gate’s butt, to the snide “I’m a PC” nonsense they have really don’t done it for me… .and this is, of course, a rip-off of Apple’s idea “What’s on your powerbook?” from ages past. (One of my alltime favorites.)

    But this ad works, and it focuses on a feature and makes that feature understandable.

    I think it is a good ad.

  • This bit is an almost shot-for-shot remake of a VW commercial of the era (in the original, they pick up a couch.)

    I think this, and the “Ballmer late night salesman” ad were inside jokes MSFT did for presentations and conferences, as opposed to real TV ads, like the one the article is about.

  • Ruby

    For everyday folk (that these advertisements are targeted at) the name Steve Ballmer does not even ring any bells. When I first read this article and watched the ad, I scoffed out loud and asked my immediate family “Who would buy a product Steve Ballmer ‘raves’ about?” My family looked at me blankly.
    But despite their obvious disinterest and ignorance at most things “technical” (their words not mine), they do recognise Steve Jobs. They know his name, they know his face, they even know his voice…
    Steve Ballmer can give all the praises in the world, but the impact on the general population will be minimal. Whenever Steve Jobs put his name on a product and backed it, the world sat up and listened.

  • Clive Knight

    It’s almost a testimonial ad and I have always believed that “Testimonial Advertising is for the Creatively Destitute”