Ripping PR Yarns: Microsoft
Building the Perfect Bill
Three major components have gone into the building of Bill Gates’ public persona: dress, demeanor and financial humility. In terms of his personal appearance, inordinate amounts of ink have been dedicated to Bill Gates’ clothing and personal appearance. He wears glasses, not contacts. His sweaters are usually described as tattered and worn. His hair is often a “rats nest” and usually untidy. It used to be widely reported he doesn’t bathe often enough (but his wife took care of that). He tends to fidget when his picture is taken. He wears lots of jeans and worn khakis. He almost never used to wear a suit and looks a bit uncomfortable when he does. (And you never saw in him those annoying Master-of-the-Universe-80’s-style suspenders.) And that’s a smart thing, because people always tend to distrust a man in an Armani suit with a yellow tie, red suspenders, helmet hair and perfect nails.
Of course, as the years have passed, we’ve learned Bill has changed. Dandruff, wild hair and greasy clothing have given way to more reasonable coiffures, better clothing and even sometimes a suit if conditions demand it (like testifying in federal court during the penalty phase of an anti-trust case). The ugly geekling has undergone a transformation into a mature-elder-statesman-of-technology swan. It’s a story with a nice arc. People respond to it.
Then there’s Gates’ demeanor. Over the course of his career he has always avoided talking about or criticizing other companies and people (in public). There have been lapses, but not many. Gates has never indulged in such Sturm und Drang pronouncements as Larry Ellison’s infamous “It’s not enough we (Oracle) win, everyone else must lose.”
Gates is at his best when he’s talking about the impact of computing on the future and its potential to enrich us all. He’s not a good public speaker by conventional measures. His voice tends to be thin and reedy, though he is a disciplined presenter and always covers his main talking points. But Gates is a passionate speaker, one who believes in what he says, and this quality overcomes most of his technical deficiencies.
He wrote a book of Deep Thoughts about the future of technology, The Road Ahead. It’s not a very good book, but people are OK with that. Richest man in the world, smart little geek and talented writer might just be a little too much to bear. And the book is just bad enough to convince people that Gates really tried to write it himself and didn’t hire some slick ghost writer to churn out more corporate propaganda. Gates wrote his own propaganda and he believes it. People like sincerity combined with the right dash of self-effacing ineptitude.
Finally, there is the matter of money. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Bill Gates is the wealthiest man who has ever lived. But that doesn’t mean you need to talk about it and Bill Gates never does. Over the years Gates has acted like all this money just…happened. And Gates has done conventional humble millionaire things like take coach flights instead of riding first class (and of course let everyone know it). He owns tons of stock but his executive compensation is moderate by current corporate standards. Americans like that. A dash of Uriah Heep and ‘umbleness goes a long way in creating a pleasing corporate persona.
Gates’ personal rectitude has also helped reinforce his image. He didn’t buy a yacht or sponsor one (always a bad PR move). Unlike Larry Ellison, who tried to buy a Russian Mig 29, he’s made no attempt to buy any discarded military ordinance. He did buy a jet or two but doesn’t talk about it. He does like fast cars but what American boy doesn’t? There have been no multiple succession of Mrs. Gates; just the one with whom he’s had three children. No discarded starlets and semi-famous personalities dishing dirt to the tabloids. Before her tragic early death from cancer, Gates called his mother every week.
He did spend a lot on his house ($50 million) but Microsoft PR spent a lot of time positioning Gates’ Xanadu as both a giant geek toy and multimedia laboratory. Those built-in electronic wall displays that can be programmed to project an endless variety of artistic images, you know. A bit of a stretch, but given Bill’s past history they got away with it. And the man does have three kids. That’s a big family in today’s world and you need a big house. Prodded by Mrs. Gates, he has caught on to the charity game and the noblesse oblige expected from the very rich. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has subsequently given away hundreds of millions of well-publicized dollars. All the bases have been covered.
And Bill has also shared the wealth! No Enron-type scandals here, no poor bedraggled corporate drones deprived of their retirement funds and stock options earned from the exhausting task of depriving the state of California of power. Not only has Microsoft created more millionaires than any company in history (current estimates peg the number at about 12 thousand), it has created more billionaires: Gates, co-founder Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer and Scott Oki. And Microsoft the company also gives away millions of dollars of stuff, mostly Microsoft software, valued at full retail price. (Normally, industry marketers call this “building an installed base” and no one pays full retail but the stuff is free.)...