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It wasn't always the case that the likes of Frank Budgen, Fredrik Bond, Andrew Douglas and Rupert Sanders were clamoring to direct the latest Hewlett-Packard commercial. But the fact that they are is testimony to the remarkable improvement in quality in this once stodgy brand's advertising since San Francisco's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners introduced the $300 million "Invent" campaign last year. At a time when the commercials production business is mired in creative doldrums, HP is getting into its stride with a campaign that would be daring and innovative, even if it were not for an advertiser with such an underwhelming previous track record- the recent "You" and "Flowers" spots being the latest in a string of gems since the initial "Anthem" and Bond's widely admired "Thief" spot.

What lies behind the transformation? Let's not forget it came about in the wake of the messy, largely negative publicity that swirled around HP's takeover of Compaq - during which it was depicted pretty much as the copier company that took over the PC company, which certainly rankled the client. More that that, is it working and will it last? Having responded belatedly to the consistently excellent IBM ad oeuvre, will HP and Goodby be able to maintain their current standard let alone match IBM and Ogilvy's decade-long level of consistency, or is this yet another experiment in marketing that's dependent on a few key execs staying in place?

Mike Weir is a pretty good person to ask. As HP's VP-consumer marketing, he has a huge amount personally invested in the success of the new campaign, although, as he points out, he doesn't run the enterprise half of HP's marketing. "This was all about us waking up and saying, 'This is where we need to be,' having asked consumers what they thought about us after the merger," Weir begins. "Consumers trusted the HP brand, which is not to be underestimated, but we weren't perceived to be as hip as we know we are. It was not that much of a surprise, but what was a surprise was how important it was to be seen to be hip - especially among younger consumers."

Weir points out that HP was the original garage startup, but he acknowledges that the company had become large and cumbersome, which applied as much to its marketing as to anywhere else. Famously decentralized in the past, HP had a wonderful structure through which engineers could get new products out, but it was a disaster for marketing. No one would even use the same typefaces, and although the spend was never tiny, it felt so much smaller than it was because it was so fragmented. As were the agency arrangements. There were some 86 around the world four years ago. Today there is just Publicis and Goodby. "We had to establish a much more streamlined approval process, cutting out maybe some people who have products in there," Weir says. "We can't leave this to a committee of 100 people. Previously there was no coordination or focus. No one campaign was large enough to make a big splash."

So HP has cut down on the number of products it advertises, and it has concentrated on marketing the experience of using the product rather than the technology - at least to date. It is, says Weir, about the enjoyment of using the product. One byproduct of this rationalization is actually an increase in production budgets. At a time when so many other marketers are cutting back, HP is self-confidently stating a belief in the type of beautiful minifilms for television that are so apparently unfashionable in today's penny-pinching climate. Asked if he ever balked at the production budgets that come hand in hand with an A-list lineup of directors, he is unequivocal: "Absolutely not, you would have to shoot me if I did."

All of which appears to leave Steve Simpson, the Goodby creative director on HP, in an enviable position. Along with Keith Anderson, head of design at the agency, Simpson has worked on HP ever since Goodby had just the printer and toner account. In addition to Weir, Simpson also works with Alison Johnson, since 1999 the HP senior VP-global brand and communications (formerly with IBM, Netscape and Apple). Her challenge to his team - to "Make every ad something I would want to put up on my wall" - makes her sound like a dream client, but it brings its own set of problems. "I don't tend to have ads on the wall," Simpson jokes, before adding, "This all began with Carly Fiorina's appointment as CEO. Obviously, marketing wasn't her top priority. But HP had never really thought about its brand the way it was forced to after the merger. It's a very modest culture. They were not about breast beating. We met with Fiorina before we met anyone else. And then they formed a new brand advertising group. The stuff we came up with about them being a company of inventors is pretty unarguable. They were the original startup in a garage. So, we base this stuff in pragmatic messages. It's honest and true to them. But we can provide the art, the whimsy, the wit."

In addition to the allegorical television, which has featured design finessing by Motion Theory, (the next spot will be Budgen's), there has been an equally striking print campaign filled with that art and whimsy. Most notable was last month's 20-page "You + HP" insert in The New York Times Magazine, which was about the entire picture-making process. Look out too for a lot of HP action on Reuters' Times Square digital board, with an expected 10 minutes of original content per hour. HP is also planning to "own" some subway stations in San Francisco and New York.

Anderson, who designed the insert, adds, "As more work has run, HP has gotten more comfortable and insisted that each piece raise the bar. They've really embraced the visual style of the brand. Everyone knows now that everything is a continuation of something else. It's amazing we have a client pushing us to do more." Weir, Simpson and Anderson all note how rewarding it is to create work that star directors and photographers now want to be part of.

But all know it is way too early to say they have a long-term business success on their hands. "I'm a big fan of IBM's ads," says Simpson. "They have shown such discipline and worked so hard for 10 years. The test for us is can we keep it up for 10 years. We take a different approach. They say, 'It's hard, leave it to us.' We say, 'It's fun, we can figure it out together.' " Though Simpson concedes, "In the past, HP ads have had some criticism for being too 'American.' These are more global, or at least more European in feel."

It's not all been smooth sailing; HP uses copytesting, and Weir hints at behind-the-scenes moments when he says, "HP is a little more analytical than many clients. Let's just say there have been several iterations of this campaign." But even the fact that he admits this points to the strength of the client-agency relationship.

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