FRAMINGHAM (11/07/2003) - As a general rule, world-class companies shouldn't tie their images too closely to the appeal of any one celebrity. This year has already shown why deals with sports stars are especially risky. Baseball's Sammy Sosa and basketball's Kobe Bryant were among the most admired athletes in American sports. Then Sosa was caught using an illegal corked bat, and, far more seriously, Bryant was accused of sexual assault. IBM Corp. probably had it right when it chose the timeless image of Charlie Chaplin's tramp to introduce its first PCs.
Nevertheless, the recent multiyear contract enabling Accenture Ltd. to use Tiger Woods as the global symbol of its new High Performance Business initiative is intriguing, and perhaps even important. To me, the significance of this deal isn't what it says about the impressive rise of golf within the global business community, but rather how it accurately reflects the needs of today's IT industry. Here's why:
For more than 40 years, the IT business has been dominated by its largest hardware, software and networking suppliers. Throughout the 1990s, the CEOs of product companies such as Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Dell Inc. were by far the most visible industry leaders. The voices of IT customers and IT services companies -- IBM, Electronic Data Systems Corp., Accenture and others -- were much more muted.
But have you noticed that ever since the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the words of Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, John Chambers and company don't have nearly the impact they once did? Part of this is simply a matter of these IT boosters having to spend a decent interval licking their wounds and eating humble pie. But there's a more fundamental reason: Increasingly, IT product companies are finding themselves unable to speak to the technology industry issues that really matter.
By now, it should be clear that the health of the IT industry can't be restored simply by developing more powerful servers, operating systems, databases or even gridlike networks. Renewed growth will require that customers move forward with major new classes of IT usage. Many of these new applications will be industry-specific in nature and won't be dependent upon new generations of general-purpose products. Instead, they'll require the strong commitment of customers and the IT services companies that support them.
This is why I have long argued that IT industry leadership needs to shift away from product companies and toward IT services firms. But thus far, the major services companies have been slow to assume the role of IT industry advocates, resulting in today's noticeable leadership void.
The Accenture/Tiger Woods arrangement suggests that this might be changing. Let's hope that the company isn't just basking in Woods' limelight and that it's committed to becoming a much more visible and positive industry force.
Few people embody the combination of ability, focus and pursuit of excellence more completely than Tiger Woods. But beyond his many great individual achievements, Tiger's most important accomplishment has been to raise the global image of and enthusiasm for his sport. If Accenture can actually start doing this for IT, its huge multimedia campaign will be well worth the cost and risk, and could become a real marketing coup.
For nearly three years, the IT business has been understandably timid and defensive. Perhaps the time for more aggressive tigers has finally returned.
David Moschella's latest book is Customer-Driven IT: How Users Are Shaping Technology Industry Growth. Contact him at email@example.com.