What is the story behind AT&T’s 1993 “You Will” ads that so accurately predicted the future of technology? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
What is the story behind AT&T’s 1993 “You Will” ads that so accurately predicted the future of technology? I ran that ad campaign for AT&T.
All the applications in those commercials that seem so prescient today were technologies that we were working on at the time, in conjunction with Bell Labs. I myself was originally with Bell Labs before moving to corporate AT&T at Basking Ridge, NJ, in 1980.
The project management teams were working on exciting new areas of product development… telemedicine, video conference meetings, Audix voicemail systems for businesses, advanced fax technology, video compression, human factors research. Several PhDs at the labs were growing RGB crystals for flat screen TVs. It was all revolutionary stuff.
A young team of six people, including me, were charged with developing leading-edge new business services (as opposed to consumer services). I was Product Manager for the Picturephone Meeting Service, one of the key areas where we saw AT&T having a dominant future.
We at Corporate did all the research in specific markets of video conferencing, voicemail, messaging, security, and even RFID tracking. Financial business cases were developed, and the labs were funded to build the products and services.
It was akin to being at Xerox PARC or at Palo Alto Research Park. I visited all of them. We were well on our way to making these applications commercial using the latest Bell Labs research and technology.
In the mid-Eighties, AT&T was offered the chance to sponsorat Disney’s EPCOT Center, showcasing some of our applications. When it launched, EPCOT demonstrated the appeal of AT&T’s technology vision. Millions of visitors saw it and were excited by its near-term realization.
By 1993, the products we had in mind were not quite ready for prime time–the quality they needed to be at for widespread market adoption was not there yet, and affordability would also have been a factor. But in reality, the concepts were good, the core technology was real, and we just needed to wait for Moore’s law and Internet adoption to catch up for us to properly commercialize them.
So, you might ask, why go to air with these commercials about still-in-development applications?
We were slipping in a critical area. Consumer technology was rapidly being overwhelmed by companies like Sony and Panasonic in areas of video and music and computing. That led to subsequent consumer research showing AT&T was losing the public perception battle across a number of tech attributes, including “most likely to bring new technology to the lives of 18-34 year-olds”.
AT&T brand marketing felt like it had to rebuild its image. Using the feedback from EPCOT and the applications that received such positive consumer response, we launched an advertising plan to promote a new image of AT&T, even introducing a new globe logo. A meeting was called with N.W. Ayer & Son, our long-standing lead agency of record.
The new “You Will” campaign began to take shape, using our vision of the future.
The aim of this advertising initiative was clear: To project a more relevant AT&T to the youth demographic, and build enthusiasm for what we had in the pipeline.
We picked all of the applications and technology that we thought were both realistic and would create interest for consumers. Apart from the “You Will” signoff that most people remember from the commercials today, there was a second tagline we used in some of our advertising: “More than you imagine, and sooner than you think.” I loved that line.
It was a massive campaign, and the team at Ayer was appropriately huge. They had different project leaders for content, creative and video production, and even market research testing.
David Fincher, whose Hollywood directorial debut Alien 3 had recently earned an Oscar nomination for visual effects, was picked to direct the commercials.
The initial cut of the ad had actor Robin Williams providing the voice. In tests, it did okay, but not great. The agency then switched to Tom Selleck, which proved to be a dramatic improvement.
While I’m not aware of the specifics of the video development and the scripting–Ayer was based in New York while I was back at headquarters in Basking Ridge, working to get Picturephone deployed–I did have daily conference calls with the agency, going over technical insights, applications, etc.
Apart from the commercials, we also had radio and print in the mix, and would along the way have the very first banner ad on the internet (or at least one of six, on some of the commercials, one of the print ads and the internet’s first banner ad(it was believed to have had a 44% clickthrough ratio, with visitors taken to a You Will microsite).). Here are
Even before it launched, it was clear from focus group tests that this campaign was going to be a memorable one. But through all these years, there was one remark made that has stayed with me. A young friend of mine, a computer science student, mentioned that he had seen the commercials and was really intrigued.
“But,” he asked me, “how can we trust that AT&T will really do all of this?”
I have thought about that question many times. It is one thing to make a great commercial but it is quite another to make a great promise and keep it.
Unfortunately, two things conspired to work against us:
One, the emergence and widespread adoption of the internet arrived just a little too late for us to push our products out at prices that the market would bear.
And two, a second breakup (after the big one that created seven Baby Bells in 1984) resulted in AT&T spinning off Bell Labs and its equipment manufacturing business in 1995.
We had technology and applications that were before their time, and now were left without the ability to commercialize them.
Eventually it was left to Intel, Cisco, Microsoft, Apple, and many other companies who stepped up and brought these technologies to consumers; leaving AT&T behind.
Post-script: After the breakup, AT&T entered the ISP business which was evolving quickly with the spread of the internet. I was one of the original product managers of AT&T’s WorldNet internet service. We rose from being a non-player to the No. 2 ISP within the space of a year.
Those who were around in 1994-95 will recall that AOL charged $20/month for 12 hours of dial-up service at the time. We came up with the concept of unlimited service for the exact same price. It was a huge hit. The internet was never the same since then.
It’s good to win some battles!