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Larry Ellison -- Genius Leader, Terrible Copywriter

When some tech manager insists you boil it down to statistics and technical jargon, remember that they’re the engineers.


Richard Levitt, who worked in communications at Oracle for more than seven years, originally published this post on LinkedIn.

Notice that Larry Ellison, now executive chairman of Oracle, is not stepping down at all. He’s stepping aside, and just barely. His vast influence will continue. Officially, over technology development. But more than likely over all of Oracle, as it has been.

I worked at Oracle for seven years, about five with Brand Communications, and two with Global Advertising. Larry’s influence was ubiquitous. But — at least in the marketing communications organization — it got degraded.

Here’s how:

Our mandate was to “channel Larry” in all communications. Ostensibly, that meant avoiding unnecessary executive approval.

But really:

It meant trying to use language the way he used it — or better, recycling existing language. Second-guessing his opinions or whims. Basically, avoiding criticism.

It started off right …

Around 1984, Rick Bennett convinced Larry to start running ads. Rick’s approach is highly aggressive and confrontational. And, as it turned out, highly disruptive and successful.

In an essay about his time working with Larry, Rick wrote, “I once asked Larry if maybe we ought to run some ad copy by legal. His response surprised me. He said, ‘Hell no! I’ve got a litigation department. Let ’em litigate.’”

That relationship lasted until about 1990. Soon Larry started writing his own ads. Larry is a brilliant tech guy, powerful leader and businessman. But he’s not a copywriter. And without anyone to guide or challenge him, that edgy positioning diminished into self-referential statistics. Worse, ads crumbled under extreme legal oversight.

What happened?

Here’s what happened:

The idea of “Larry’s voice” became code for communications that are blunt to the point of being austere, humorless and characterless. Confrontation became comparison.

A demand-gen email I did was called out by a popular blogger for being meaningless B.S., when of course it was exactly the opposite. It was so hyper-specific and detailed that the meaning escaped him.

Part of that is being in an organization dominated by technology, not marketing. But still.

Bring on the Larry who flies stunt planes:

The Larry I’ve seen in meetings and at events is not austere, humorless and characterless. He’s extremely smart, articulate, insightful and funny. He’s persuasive, passionate, stylish and sophisticated.

But he needs communications leadership. He needs to be challenged.

So, to Mark and Safra:

Here’s my challenge: Demand that Oracle’s communications organization channel Larry’s real voice — his intellect, enthusiasm, style. Speak with excitement and verve. “No. 1 Retail” only tells prospects there’s a deep installed base, that Oracle is the entrenched old school.

What would Larry say to the retail CMO trying to decide on a CRM or CX solution? That Oracle is No. 1? No. More likely that Oracle will help make them No. 1. He’d focus on benefits to the prospect, not features of the product.

And to everyone in Oracle communications:

Fight the good fight. When some tech manager insists you boil it down to statistics and technical jargon, remember that they’re the engineers. Tech jargon is their business. You’re the communicators.

Statistics don’t drive response. Benefits do. All the chestnuts, clichés and hackneyed language are comfortable and easy to get approved. But they’re also easy for prospects to ignore.

Lee Clow, the creative genius at TBWA\Worldwide, wrote, “Our clients are just as difficult and just as demanding as any other clients. But when they shoot down our work, we go back and do something better.”

So go do something better.

Richard Levitt is a brand and content strategist, creative director and copywriter.

This article originally appeared on

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