Cisco gave me a chair once.
It wasn’t just me, get it – they handed out one to every person who attended their analyst event, at their UK offices in Bedfont Lakes. It was a lovely chair, one of those folding chairs you might want to take camping, but this one had an added feature: a detachable footrest, so you could sit back and watch the sunset in luxury. It was blue, and the firm but comfortable head cushion had the Cisco logo stamped on it. I knew that wherever I traveled, Cisco would have my back, or at least my neck, fully supported.
When said chair was thrown into my arms by a cheerful analyst relations professional, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for those analysts who hadn’t arrived at the event by car. Some would brave public transport to get back to their bases in central London; others would be on trains or even planes to travel home. Looking around, I saw the faces of several somewhat puzzled analysts. It was a very nice chair, but it came with… ramifications? And could it have been expensive?
Some in the room may have been part of the 3Com GPS debacle a year earlier. 3Com was being rebooted under new management, and its analyst relations program started with a big budget and a desire to impress. Analysts, including me, were sent a fancy Garmin GPS device, captioned “we’re finding our direction.” The campaign flopped as many analysts, myself included, felt the expensive device was overstepped. We can’t be bought with something shiny! the feedback came. For the record, I gave mine to a local scouting troop.
Reflecting on these memories, I can’t help but wonder why vendors give things to analysts in the first place. I can think of several very good reasons, including that branded swag (as it’s called on the tech conference circuit, also in various giveaways and gossip) serves a solid, general purpose: in a market that’s a maelstrom of Competing brands, what better way to maintain a presence than with a pair of brightly colored logo socks (love these), or a handy bag for all your cables (thanks, Red Hat)?
In Analyst Events, loot has an additional purpose. People want it, you see, despite millennia of evolution, we can’t escape our inner desire to accumulate shiny things. Seasoned AR professionals know that the best way to get analysts to fill out a feedback form at the end of an event is to have a row of white cardboard boxes behind your desk – even the most cynical industry insiders will be seen, lined up at the counter with their filled out forms, then rummaging through the box with all the excitement of a child in a lucky dip. A USB mug warmer, you say? Cool!
Even with such rational (if uncomfortable) reasons for delivering branded paraphernalia into the hands of usually industry influencers, there has to be a line. I haven’t been around to professional AR meetings, but I can imagine the “What did you give them?” The topic has come up. From an analyst’s perspective, loot flyers can feel a bit like party bags—anyone with kids will know the angst involved in what to get kids who deign to show up at your little munchkin’s birthday event. What starts with a pencil and a palette can turn into an all-out war between overly competitive parents looking to prove how good they are at not ignoring their children.
In my experience, every once in a while the party bags would see a reboot, going back to pencils and lollipops and a collective sigh of relief from everyone involved (everyone except the kids, who won’t dwell on the “what the hell is this? in the car on the way home – they get used to it.) Similarly, the rule of thumb with swag is to always make sure it stays on the side of fun and fitness for purpose: thanks for coming, a helpful message for feedback, a simple way to keep it in mind.
Even the cost can become less relevant, if the cost has a purpose. I accepted a Dell PDA from Dell and an Amazon Echo from AWS, for example, knowing that I’ll use the stuff later and see if the vendors made sense. Software vendors may have a problem with this, but when I think about it, I don’t know why software licenses or service packs aren’t on the figurative table. And for analysts, I would share another rule of thumb: if you feel uncomfortable talking publicly about a ‘gift’ from an expensive vendor, then you should ask yourself why, and possibly return it.
In general, a little thought, including adding to bins full of broken electronics and mountains of plastic, can go a long way. (I was immediately reminded of a towel from Hewlett Packard, emblazoned with the words, “Next e:e-Services.” That was a great towel, so good it outlasted e-Services and, in fact, the entire e:Services division.) HP software).
Perhaps, above all, the only thing we can see in the loot is that it is necessarily a small token of gratitude. The analyst industry is built on relationships: less an exclusive club and more an ecosystem of testers. As analysts, we recognize that we are empowered to connect with technology providers so that we can correctly represent the market – this is not a right, but rather a very welcome facet of the complex and fast-moving industry in which we work. Similarly, I hope vendors and their analyst relations teams recognize the challenge analysts face when looking to stay on top of everything: spending half a day or more at an event is necessary and challenging, given the sheer volume of change. .
So let’s be glad what we have, relationships, and if AR teams choose to brand them in some way, that should be fine. Perhaps the point is not to worry about spending too much: it’s the idea that matters much more. The chair didn’t last forever, by the way, but we spent a few years with it, taking turns putting our feet up and watching the sunset. While I can’t honestly say that it did anything to change my (generally reasonable) views of Cisco, I still have fond memories of the AR team that made it happen.