Selling the CEO

To see one of the odder ad campaigns in business history (and I know that’s saying a lot), check out the back cover of the most recent issue of Fortune. It features a Richard Avedon color portrait of Katrina Garnett, the president and CEO of a Silicon Valley company called CrossWorlds Software. Garnett is wearing what I think you’d describe as a little black dress, diamond earrings, and shiny lip gloss, and is showing a bit of cleavage. She looks rather like she’s preparing to dazzle the crowd at a MOMA fundraiser. The ad also features the kind of list (“Recent Thrill,” “Favorite Charity,” “Mission”) that calls to mind either Playboy centerfolds or those 1980s Dewars’ ads that told us what the most recent book was that urban hipsters had read.

Now, on its own terms this is a fairly weird ad for a company to run in Fortune magazine (the ad has also run in more mainstream magazines). But sex (or perhaps it’s just glamour) does sell, I suppose. And certainly you’re more likely to remember Katrina Garnett than you are that SAS ad showing nerdy corporate types talking about data warehousing.

But what makes the ad really strange is the fact that CrossWorlds Software is in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) software business (like Dataworks, the subject of yesterday’s Moneybox). That means that its customers are all corporations. In fact the ad describes Garnett’s “next target” as “software connecting global corporations with their suppliers, customers, and partners.” So CrossWorlds is going after big game. But that raises the question: Whom is this ad campaign targeting?

After all, no chief information officer for a large corporation is going to say: “Let’s get our software from CrossWorlds. Their CEO is a babe.” CrossWorlds’ product is reputed to be excellent, and Garnett herself–who spent 10 years at database giants Oracle and Sybase before starting CrossWorlds–is said to be brilliant. So presumably CrossWorlds’ software can sell itself. And, again, an Avedon ad is hardly the quickest way to a corporate executive’s heart. So what the heck is going on?

The only plausible answer, I think, has to do with the fact that CrossWorlds is preparing to go public relatively soon. Individual and institutional investors are always looking for a story to accompany an IPO, and certainly this ad campaign has generated a great deal of buzz in the Valley. Just as software company Marimba has reaped the benefits of the public attention lavished on its CEO, Kim Polese (who’s currently featured in an Anne Klein ad), one can imagine CrossWorlds basking in the attention that Garnett will attract. It’s a curious comment on our current investment climate that a company would think it made sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on an ad campaign with no evident purpose other than to get the company’s name out to prospective investors. Oy vey.