June 16, 2011 was an important day for IBM – the 100th anniversary of our founding. It was also a significant day in the world of publishing. Not only is it observed around the world as “Bloomsday,” marking the date in 1904 on which the fictional events in James Joyce’s Ulysses take place in Dublin… but also the pub date for a somewhat less weighty tome, IBM’s centennial book, Making the World Work Better: The Ideas that Shaped a Century and a Company (with an initial print run of more than 500,000 copies, and some gratifying notice in the media.

This June 16 was also the day on which IBM published a four-page insert in The Wall St. JournalThe New York Times and The Washington Post – describing some of what we have learned over a century about long-term survival and success. This piece has attracted a fair amount of attention in the press (e.g., see this in Ad Age), as well as some interested inquiries from Page Society members on how it was created.

In certain ways, doing this short piece was as hard as doing the 350-page book. Not in terms of research or production, obviously – but in terms of making the decision to do it in the first place, and choosing what we would say.

We wanted to do something beyond a familiar anniversary celebratory ad. We didn’t want simply to say, “We’re here, and we’re proud!” or even “Look at IBM’s storied history of innovation!!” Rather, we wanted to distill key learnings from our 100 years. This piece – and this is what Ad Age missed – isn’t “advertising.” Yes, we paid for the space, but we’re using it for a fundamentally different purpose.

If this is marketing, it’s not for what the corporation sells, but for the corporation itself, in its entirety. We are defining IBM – and that definition is intended at least as much for internal as for external audiences. We are talking to ourselves, doing so honestly (admitting mistakes, admitting internal dissension), and doing it in front of the world, so that the world can see and hear who we really are – and, importantly, so that we can hear ourselves being authentic in front of that world.

It’s one thing to have this kind of honest dialogue internally. It’s another thing to initiate this kind of dialogue outside the firewall. When you do that, you’re implicitly committing to remain in the public sphere. You’re putting all your chips down on particular squares – of policy, of values, of brand definition. You’re committing not just to continue looking like IBM… and sounding like IBM… even thinking like IBM… but to being IBM henceforth.

In other words, we’re using our advertising budget to pull back the curtain on ourselves – to be, well, authentic. As you would expect, that requires a lot of internal discussion and decision. And it requires considerable courage by our senior executive team – from Legal, to HR, to Finance, to our CEO. As challenging as the thinking, research, writing and design were for this insert, the most important work was to engage the company’s management in its purpose.

Now, what lessons might this hold for CCOs? Clearly, IBM’s particular circumstances are unique, and a centennial is an unusual occasion, calling for work that is far from BAU. But let me offer some general principles that may be relevant for any organization seeking to be an authentic enterprise:

  • The key issue in any communication isn’t the how, it’s the what. You can’t turn a piece of promotion into an authentic expression through technique, no matter how artful. And craft is never a substitute for credible facts, data, evidence.
  • The most effective way to reach internal audiences can sometimes be in external venues, and vice-versa. We hear ourselves differently when we speak in public – and the public experiences us differently when it hears us talking to others.
  • Defining corporate character is very, very hard. It’s not enough to be eloquent. You have to be right. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” This work is about the tree.
  • If you’re going to market the entire organization, the entire organization has to believe what you are saying. This speaks to the CCO’s emerging role as a kind of “chief collaboration officer.” It’s not about writing by committee – we still need those who are skilled at the traditional crafts of communication. But it is about ongoing and genuinely collaborative dialogue about goals, strategy and values.