How to scare people into buying your product.

Whitelight Risk Management Software

Way back in the 1990s a software development company In Palo Alto in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley was funded by a consortium of major US banks to develop a new generation of risk management software.

The result was an extremely powerful programme that could handle hugely complex calculations, and crunch massive data sets, very quickly. It would enable those at the top of big financial institutions to make better informed decisions without delay.  For instance, answer questions like “what would be the combined effect on the value of our funds if the oil price goes over $100 a barrel, there’s an invasion of Iraq and the Fed announces a hike in interest rates?”

In the past completing each calculation would have required assistance from expert programmers, by which time the moment would have passed. OK, this product doesn’t sound very cutting edge now, but back in the dying days of the last century it was revolutionary.


Too much information

The team in California invited several big US ad agencies to pitch for the launch. But decided to throw in, as a wild card, a little design agency in Bath that had approached their UK office.

The agency asked for my help. Together we did a variety of different concepts and were invited to visit the Palo Alto head office to present them. We flew out, then spent the next day sitting in a little room whose walls were covered, from floor to ceiling, in huge whiteboards covered in diagrams and algorithms. Every 45 minutes a different vice president or super-bright geek would brief us on a different aspect of the system’s workings, or on how they planned to approach the market. The only thing they couldn’t tell us was what they wanted to say – they could present it in 10,000 words, but not half a dozen.


Sleepless in Palo Alto

Next morning we were due to present our ideas to the board – but now realised that we had nothing worth showing. I couldn’t sleep for turning it over in my mind. About 4am I felt an idea taking shape. I got up, made myself a black coffee, took a page of the motel stationery and wrote a headline. Then another, and another.

They looked good to me. But how could I sell them? The presentation, a few hours later, went like this. “This program is too complicated to explain – it’ll take too many words and the target audience don’t have the time for that. We need to stop talking features and start talking benefits. And to do that we have to understand the psyche of the person who will be using it. They are people tasked with managing risk, so we can be pretty sure they lie awake at night worrying about all the things that could possibly go wrong. In one of our sessions yesterday the VP Northern Hemisphere made an interesting point. He said “We have to find their pain”. He’s right, and these people have big pain – in the form of fear. The best way to sell this thing is scare the **** out of them.”

Then we showed them my headlines, scribbled in ballpoint, on cheap motel letterhead. The effect was beautiful to behold. They even liked the strapline: “Whitelight. A brighter way to make decisions”. We got the business.


They made big $

This was another instance of a story that sold very successfully (they sold the whole company and made a pile). It instantly differentiated the product by not talking geek-speak, by appealing to emotion rather than logic. It proved motivational as hell. And the way we told it, with bold scary headlines, really bigged-up the effect.

Press ads in leading financial journals and risk management magazines. Created in partnership with DC Design.