The Media Business: Advertising

To freshen an I.B.M. campaign, Ogilvy uses ex-stars of the N.B.A.

By Stuart Elliot
The New York Times

January 11, 2002

THE term ''b-to-b'' usually means business-to-business, but an aggressive campaign for I.B.M. hopes to make buyers of information technology equipment think it means basket-to-basket.

The campaign, which begins on Sunday, uses the game of basketball to stand for the intensely competitive and fast-moving nature of e-commerce.

The television commercials in the campaign, with an initial budget estimated at more than $25 million, carry the theme ''play to win,'' a more assertive stance for I.B.M. than in recent months when its advertising seemed muted to reflect the chastened mood of the marketplace after the dot-com crash.

The commercials feature former professional basketball stars like Muggsy Bogues, Bill Laimbeer and Moses Malone as members of a team named Infrastructure, standing for the integration and cooperation I.B.M. considers necessary for e-commerce to function. The Infrastructure team is matched in games against a sharp-elbowed bunch of cheaters competing under the name Crash.

The good guys -- in blue uniforms, natch, which is the traditional I.B.M. color -- are players called Mainframe, PC, Firewall, Linux and Middleware. The opponents are called Downtime, Hacker, Spam (the e-mail variety, of course, not the Hormel spiced ham), Spike and Virus.

The touches meant to evoke actual basketball games and underline the analogy for even the most inattentive couch potato include jerseys bearing the fanciful names, boisterous fans waving signs, autograph seekers outside the locker room and a hard-working coach for the Infrastructure team, portrayed by the former player George Gervin, who winks at the audience in one spot by describing the importance of ''the ability to move that metaphorical basketball that's information.''

The commercials are variations -- version 2.0 or 2.1, as it were -- on a popular and successful effort begun in October 1997 by I.B.M. and its longtime agency, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide in New York, part of the WPP Group, which is widely credited with introducing the phrase ''e-business'' to the corporate vocabulary. The spots, like their 75 to 100 predecessors, are recognizable for being shot in the letterbox format with bands of blue -- there's that color again -- framing the action at the top and bottom of the screen.

The commercials represent the juggling act advertisers and agencies must perform when caring for and feeding a long-running campaign. They need to effectively balance elements of the familiar and the fresh because without the former, the campaign can lose the awareness it has developed over time, but without the latter, it runs the risk of boring consumers.

''I call this a sparkler campaign, a fresh, new way of introducing the same messages, the same ideas,'' said Maureen McGuire, vice president for worldwide marketing and integrated marketing communications at I.B.M. ''It's in the format people are familiar with, but you want to shake up the approach every now and then to get attention.''

I.B.M. and Ogilvy New York, which have worked together since the company consolidated its worldwide account at the agency in 1994, ''constantly challenge each other to make sure the advertising is fresh,'' Ms. McGuire said.

Besides, ''the information technology industry is changing all the time,'' she added.

The commercials will mostly run, appropriately enough, during sports programming, mainly football games but also some professional and college basketball games.

''One thing we've tried to do is give the campaign a range of voices,'' said Chris Wall, senior partner and executive creative director at Ogilvy New York, ''with a consistent thread of 'I.B.M. gets contemporary business and has good products and know-how.' ''

He added, ''Here we're trying to take the more complex aspects of e-business like infrastructure and make them relevant, to make the guy with the checkbook who doesn't know the ins and outs of technology feel like he knows what he's doing.''

The commercials are ''more theatrical,'' Mr. Wall said, than the regular spots in the campaign, which have ''a more empathetic, inside-business voice.''

The regular spots typically present discussions about information technology among co-workers in office settings; Ms. McGuire described them as '' 'Dilbert'-esque conversations in which you learn something'' about I.B.M.'s products and services.

Mr. Wall said he thought the agency and the company ''did a pretty good job anticipating the downturn after the crash of the dot-coms last year'' in adjusting the tone and content of the campaign, ''and this time we feel, we hope, we are anticipating a return to more positive business'' conditions in 2002.

The approach this year is ''more 'act and win' than 'don't act and lose,' '' he added.

The commercials, which performed well with consumers in tests, are scheduled to run through late February or early March. The regular commercials will keep running, too, mostly in news and business programs.

If the basketball commercials ''take off in the market, we may decide to do something more,'' Ms. McGuire said, like increase the budget or produce additional spots -- or even, say, distribute posters of the Infrastructure team at real basketball games.

''You never know'' if something new will catch on, she added, because ''we had no idea'' that the campaign -- which I.B.M. and Ogilvy New York refer to internally for obvious reasons as the blue letterbox campaign -- ''would be so successful'' that it would run for more than four years.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company