I had many years of, in retrospect, relevant, but seemingly unconnected at the time, experience. CompuServe had been founded in 1969, and I became a user in 1984 when I bought a Radio Shack TRS 100 laptop computer, which came with a free one month trial subscription. I became a customer. I later advised CompuServe in the late 1980s when it faced attack from AOL, but it refused to recognize that the company was at risk. Management kept on saying “the people who know, use CompuServe, while the masses use AOL” – the kiss of death for CompuServe, of course. I had also advised AT&T, Sprint and Deutsche Telekom in telecommunications and GTE on its “Main Street” interactive video trial. So, having experienced the best in voice, video and data, I was well aware of the potential power of convergence.
When I joined Continental Cablevision in 1996 as CMO, as it was about to be acquired by US West for $10.8 Billion, I knew the company faced many challenges. Amos Hostetter, the founder and Chairman of the company, whose baby it was, had just sold it to US West Media Group, whose CEO, Chuck Lillis, had a vision to transform the company into a multi-pronged communications company - convergence. He needed the company’s fiber-optic network, the most extensive in the country then, but still in the process of being fully built out. At that time, Cable companies provided around 50 analog video channels, and no one even thought of them as Internet access or Phone providers. Yet the technology was on us, but the plans for commercialization were not. In the first few months of my tenure, I developed specific plans for hundreds of digital video channels with new content, high speed Internet access (when most consumers had 57.6 kbps dial up modems), and IP telephony. Consumer research told us that the claims were not believable – “50X current speeds, you’re nuts.” Nor were they seen as relevant. Most consumers used the Internet only for email, and saw no benefit in reading emails 50 times faster. There were no online videos, which only became possible with the introduction of High-speed data, and consumers did not understand why they would want them. Yet we enabled Netflix and many of the services we take for granted.
We had the additional disadvantage that most people hated their cable company. I remember well that I was visiting our Jacksonville office and while I was there, the Jacksonville Jaguars were playing the Denver Broncos in the playoffs. At a critical stage, there was a cable outage in the cable feed and several important minutes were lost to local viewers. On my way out, at Jacksonville airport, the security screeners realized for whom I worked from the logo on my carry-on, and put me through so many extra screenings that I missed my flight!
This meant that we had to move away from the name “Continental Cablevision” to one that screamed “convergence.” We could not just be a cable company any more and have any credibility. US West had been using the MediaOne name in Atlanta, and research showed that it would be a powerful way to signify that we could offer voice, video and data. A new logo was designed that symbolized that we offered an enormous pipe into the home, and we “only” had a “promise” to develop. The “O” in the logo was designed to represent a pipe carrying the new services to the home.
So, initially, we were offering something that few saw the need for, used new technology, and for which no products existed that would fully use its capabilities. The biggest challenge was to create an overriding theme and way to manage the “How,” the “when” as well as the “what.” There was a clear need for a “magic ingredient” in the same way that laundry detergents once used the “blue speckles.” It needed to be a term that was not in wide use, but that could be used to explain the benefits we offered. An intense search, in conjunction with our advertising agency, Margeotes Ferttita, led us to one word – “Broadband.” We had found only 15 uses of the word in the previous year worldwide, and that was in technical wireless journals. As mentioned, there is still no formal definition of it as applied to communications other than radio.
Now this was neither easy nor obvious. Many of my colleagues felt uncomfortable with it. Typical conversations ran somewhat like this:
Me: “We need to create a “Magic ingredient” that no one really understands, but sounds scientific enough to create believability for our claims.”
Executive Committee (in unison): “You must be crazy. No one will understand it, and it will never work. Why should we bet the entire future of the company on your plan?”
Me: “We have to change the game completely. We have to show people what they will be able to do with this – video, voice and Internet – while giving them a reason to believe us.”
Executive Committee: “Even our own people won’t understand or believe it.”
Me: “We have to create and execute an intensive program to train and educate all our own people.”
I must admit that neither I nor anyone else foresaw that the word would catch on so strongly, that like “Aspirin” it would become almost generic. We only encountered skepticism in the media that it would not catch on, and that I was making a huge mistake. In fact, it encapsulated everything that consumers came to understand that we were going to offer. In no small part this was due to the extraordinary advertising that our agency created. It has now become so commonplace that few realize that it was introduced by an advertising campaign. George Fertitta went on to become CEO of NYC, Inc., the entity that grew New York tourism and business so successfully in the past decade.
Our advertising agency was a strong believer, and so was I. I did convince everyone, so I rebranded the company as “MediaOne,” and launched it, with the new services and used the slogan, “This is Broadband. This is the way.” http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Broadband.html
The very first commercials in the world that mentioned “Broadband,” featured a re-working of the CSN&Y song, “Our House.” Seventeen years ago these were visionary commercials, offering a new view of the world - one that came to pass today. These commercials can be seen at the following link: http://youtu.be/eiCQtSArNwY . Subsequent follow-up :30 commercials focused on specific aspects:
Human Capacity: http://youtu.be/iWADKplUAkg
The Future Arrived: http://youtu.be/eJEGdgGpaWk
House of the Future: http://youtu.be/oMit7Zxe6b0
Future Vision of House: http://youtu.be/vBuCi6o5164
At the time, the reaction was shock and disbelief in the business press and from pundits. Many called me personally crazy, and that it would never catch on. This umbrella term was so successful that it is now globally and universally used. We were named “Marketer of the Year” in the Cable industry. This was all accomplished in six months, with the result that US West sold it two years later for $62 Billion, based on subscriber value - a “turnaround” of a company that was not failing, but that could have sunk into decline instead of into explosive value growth. I still remember well, attending all the shoots and staying at the editing studio in Manhattan well past midnight to approve the commercials so that they could go on air immediately.
I continue to preach that while most companies are “maintained,” often even quite well, re-invention is the key to real value growth. Leadership has to be transformational. The secrets to this are:
- Having breadth of experience in multiple industries, technologies and customer/consumer populations.
- Having the ability to tie together multiple strands of knowledge, as I have done in many places, including Reliant Energy or Remedy software.
- Welcoming and embracing change with passion instead of fearing it. This can be threatening to many as old knowledge becomes irrelevant and new learning is essential.
- Looking for optimization instead of step improvements, that are never transformative.