Highway 101: The Tech Industry's Madison Avenue

It's Marketing "101" on Silicon Valley's billboard-laden thoroughfare

By Scott Budman
|  Tuesday, Aug 4, 2009  |  Updated 10:49 AM PDT
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Highway 101: The Tech Industry's Madison Avenue

Google

Google is advertising its Web apps on billboards to reach new customers.

What does the tech industry do when it needs its own attention?  It turns to the one place it knows tech workers will be trapped: In their cars.

Specifically, their cars on California's Highway 101. A scenic route for most of its length, Highway 101 is Main Street for Silicon Valley's office parks. And everyone from giant Google to little Box.net is getting in on the billboard action there.

Up and down Highway 101, as one cruises through Silicon Valley, there are all sorts of billboards pitching technologies, companies, and ideas.  I've often thought that if you dropped a space traveller from another planet down onto Highway 101, he or she would have no idea what we do for a living here -- just that it has something to do with "Linux," "http," "ROI," and the like.

The billboard pitch was big in the '90s during the dotcom boom. So why is it making a comeback now? 

The advertising agency has changed a lot since the days of "Mad Men."  We're no longer captive in front of our television sets, destined to watch and absorb advertisements from our couches.  Newspapers, too, by virtue of smaller circulation, can't promise ad retention either.  The internet?  Other than Google, the dot com ad revenue stream is unproven, at best.

Think of it as the Silicon Valley version of Madison Avenue.  And the new "Mad Men?"  People like Aaron Levie, CEO of Box.net.  Levis's company is challenging Microsoft to a duel, and announcing the throwdown on the freeway, via billboard.  A billboard across the freeway from software giant Oracle's headquarters, no less.  The company is using lots of its marketing budget to get you to try its collaboration software, but says it's the only way to get the word out about its David status against the Goliath from Redmond.

Also using the freeway ad medium is Google itself, also taking on Microsoft. Google's pitch is more subtle than Box.net's. Its billboards make the case why using Google's Web apps -- substitutes for Microsoft Office -- will make your life easier. 

It takes me back to the "billboard wars" between Informix and Oracle (and we know who won there), not to mention all those cool startup ads during the dot com boom.  Heck, it's not just the tech industry.  Drive a little further north on 101, and you'll see lots of ads for hydroponics and fertilizer (call it the Mendocino influence, bud).

If you want to know what's hot these days (or, at least, trying to be hot), head to Silicon Valley and take a drive up and down 101.  Maybe you'll get some investment ideas; maybe you'll find yourself reaching for the dictionary when you get back home.  Either way, you'll see our "Mad Avenue" in all its geeky, traffic-soaked glory.

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