I started reading Barbarians Led by Bill Gates after the I’m a PC campaign tried to humanise the brand image of Microsoft. Barbarians is an unusual book: it is unspun lacking the fingerprints of public relations-led storytelling and yet fits uncomfortably between gonzo journalism and business history book. This partly explains the negative reactions that the book received on its release, in that it is a curates egg of a book.
Its isn’t strictly a history that describes Microsoft, instead it like it reminds me of a great definition for art “art isn’t about what a thing looks like, but what a thing is.”
It peers inside the software company and shows how chaotic happenstance, internal politics and ego rather than smarts managed to bring the company from being a lowly start-up to one of the world’s biggest and most powerful corporates which would match a reasonably sized country in earning power. The smarts came in when they realised the opportunities that they had been handed and the magicians art of promoting a new product: and a key part in this magic was my former agency Waggener Edstrom and in particular senior executive Pam Edstrom aka Gates’ keeper.
If you are in PR, the descriptions of the planning that went into campaign execution and long-term relationship building alone will be very instructive. For me, the description of life on the inside of Microsoft rang true, as it resonated with my own experiences in-house at Yahoo! as projects ebbed and flowed in priority on an almost weekly basis.
The book is also the story of how Marlin Eller gradually fell out of love with the company he had help build, how politics triumphed and expertise waned as Microsoft grew from a scrappy start-up to being part of the establishment. The portrayal of Bill Gates ultimately makes him more human because of his fallibility and indecision. Things that were polished out of his official image.
Although the book finishes its story in 1998, it is by turns instructive and provides an interesting prism to view the company through, as the experiences described shape the legal and commercial environment that Microsoft operates in today. For instance, Google’s openness mantra is designed to be a judo move on Microsoft’s historic business model, using the corporations own strength and size against itself.
The book is also an artifact, staring back into marketing and PR before The Cluetrain Manifesto and The Naked Corporation, but comparing and contrasting with the present can provide a a useful aid to learning a number of powerful lessons.