“What about the others?”

The story of my greatest achievement as a Public Relations professional. 

The Background

To understand how bold (and how risky) was the idea and therefore appreciate the courage of the client, you have to set your calendar back to the late Nineties:

  • the “YouTube.com” domain name would not be registered for another 6 years
  • Microsoft had just released Windows 98 SP1
  • the dominant browsers were Internet Explorer and… Netscape Classic!
  • none of the nowadays ubiquitous Social Media platforms existed: nor Facebook (2004), nor Twitter (2006) even MySpace would not be online until 2002
  • Apple stock traded in 1999 between $1,37 and $3,42 (adjusted for splits)

The client was IBM Corp. then exiting the phase of their wildly successful e-business campaign which had demonstrated how the Internet was going to change the life of businesses and now seeking ways to demonstrate how the Internet was going to change the life of everyday people.

The idea was born during a conversation between myself and the then EMEA Director of the IBM PR Account, a great friend and a fantastic pro by the name of Robert “Bob” Lear who had hired my agency to work on the IBM account, then managed in Europe by Ogilvy Public Relations.

I share with Bob a passion for music and the cultural heritage of Italy, and in particular, we are both lovers of Italian Opera; to be honest, initially we did not even fully know if what we envisaged (transmitting live video over the Internet – the word “streaming” was not even in use, then) was technically possible, but after a tumultuous brainstorm and a couple of background checks we convinced ourselves it was doable.

What follows is the original concept paper that sold the Client on the idea:

Background – Italian Opera

There are few things in the world of culture which are as strongly linked to a linguistic background and at the same time as international as Opera. However, one of the issues still facing opera enthusiasts worldwide – and especially those not living in fortunate areas like Italy, Germany or the U.S. – is the difficulty in attending world-class performance without breaking a family budget: while for a German or an Italian attending the Salzburg’s festival or a performance in the San Carlo theatre in Naples is merely a matter of a few hours’ drive, for almost everybody else it turns out to be a project requiring careful advance planning.

Background – The Arena Theatre

IBM has developed close relationship with many of the most famous Italian opera houses, among which there is the Arena di Verona, which certainly ranks in the top tier of Italian theatres, together with La Scala in Milano and the San Carlo in Naples; this year the Arena will open its season with Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.

The Arena di Verona was built during the reign of the roman emperor Augustus in 100 A.D. Today the Arena is the home of arguably one of the top three Opera Companies in the world, Verona’ Teatro Filarmonico dell’Opera. The first opera festival was held in 1913, when Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was performed. The Arena di Verona – the center of Verona’s annual opera festival which runs from late june to august – might well be the world’s most spectacular setting for an operatic performance. It is certainly the largest operatic stage in the world with over 15 thousand seats !

The project opportunity

The Opera’s ticketing entity, CariVerona Banca, and IBM have joined forces to allow opera lovers to buy their tickets easily and securely over the Internet; individuals can check ticket and seat availability for a given performance, and choose their preferred seat section online thanks to the latest in IBM’s secure e-commerce technology. Building on this relationship, it was possible to suggest the idea of turning the Opening Performance (obviously sold out already) into a next millennium event, by broadcasting it on the Internet.

The Internet event Internet technology offers us a great platform to present the world with a unique opportunity to enjoy music at a level they never experienced before: while we would never attempt to recreate the magic of the theatre lights, the smell of old chairs or the creaking sound of the stage planks, the project envisages a web site where visitors may:

  • download the actual Opening Performance as it’s being played, via audio/ video streaming
  • read the libretto in synch with the music being played / sung
  • read authoritative commentary by leading music critics on and about the actual performance
  • send e-mails to the various performers and / or critics
  • access non-event related background information, such as, e.g. players and musician’s biographies / pictures, etc.
  • visit the Arena theatre via Panoramix technology
  • view touristic information on Verona and neighbouring region

To boot, this was NOT going to be a cheap project: its mid-six-figures budget could only be found at global level and involving other sponsors. Which took time: so much time, in fact, that the green light did not come until May, 1999.

The opening performance was scheduled for June 25th, 1999.

The Project

What we were hoping to do was to create an event where everyday people could experience how an Internet-enabled future would change their lives, and to do so we chose one of the most difficult platforms: an Opera performance on the largest operatic stage in the world.

You can read in the concept above what physically is the Arena: a huge, open air roman amphitheatre used during the summer season to host theatrical performances which require unique settings: the size of the stage and the fact it’s open air require exceptional scenography, exceptional interpreters, an exceptional orchestra.

Performances at the Arena are like no other performances and in fact, all of its productions are uniquely suited to this theatre and cannot be performed anywhere else.

arena-di-verona

Everything is grandiose at the Arena: its capacity of 15,000 dwarfs the audiences the Sydney Opera House (5,000) La Scala, the Bol’shoy or the Royal Albert Hall (2,200) and every year the Opening Performance (“la Prima”) is sold out, usually well in advance.

The Key Players

But, frankly, much before we worried about how consumers would react, we needed to make sure we got the Project off the ground. An operatic performance is a devilishly complex endeavour, made unbelievably complex by the fact you have almost 200 artists who in variable degree control the artistic quality of the final product. The entity globally responsible for all the performances is Arena di Verona Foundation, a non for profit organisation sponsored by a number of private and public entities.

The Foundation defines the global program and allocates production budgets: among its key assets are the actual theatre, the permanent 100+ strong orchestra and the army of carpenters, tailors, painters, electricians and engineers who create the staging and assemble and disassemble it before and after each individual performance.

Then there are the star performers: in this specific case, the Conductor of the orchestra  (Daniel Oren), the Director of the theatrical staging (PierLuigi Pizzi) and the lead singers: Aida, a Soprano (Sylvie Valayre), Amneris, a MezzoSoprano (Larissa Diadkova) Radames, a Tenor (José Cura) and Amonasro, a Bass (Leo Nucci).

Finally, the exclusive rights for the broadcast of the performance had been sold to national television network RAI: given the impossibility to duplicate RAI’s setup of camera crews and production, an agreement had to be reached so that we could use RAI’s live feed for our purposes. For our project to happen, we had to convince all of these key players that it would not lower the overall artistic quality of their performance, but would somehow improve it.

But to do this we still needed a story which would dovetail with the “making it better” key theme and they would not reject instantly.

The Story

Opera aficionados are a fastidious lot: like in many areas of culture, innovation and technology are seen with suspicion if not outright hostility in an environment which prides itself in using instruments that are sometimes hundreds of years old: extolling the virtue of technology is like getting a violinist to trade his 1690 Stradivari for a Fender Stratocaster.

Plus, despite our limitless faith in technology, we KNEW that the technical performance was not going to be great.

Well, bar that. Actually, we knew it would be awful: even accounting for the then poor video resolution (even though HDTV with digital compression had started to appear in the mid 90s in Europe and the U.S., regular broadcasts did not start until 2004) we could not even think of making the Internet performance better than the live one, by a long, long stretch. We needed to tweak the concept to make it believable that “the use of the Internet would make people’s life better”.

It was easy to anticipate the criticism: “Technology destroys the multi-sensorial experience of theatre attendance” or “Technology takes all the nuances away: where is the creak of the stage boards, where is the smell of dust, the shadows of a theatre?” All in all, it was difficult to see what technology was ADDING to a performance or to its televised viewing, therefore creating the case that would convince all the key players to authorize our project.

There is however one aspect that was crucial to all these players: large as it is, the Arena di Verona sells all of its tickets for the Opening Performance in a matter of days when not hours. A lot of regulars purchase their ticket for next year’s performance when they attend this year’s.

Sales may not be NOT a problem, but ensuring fairness of access is. So much of a problem that tickets are allocated in batches reserved to special categories of public: people in Verona, people outside Verona, Italians, foreigners, members of cultural associations and so on. Bookings regularly exceed the supply of tickets, indicating a pent-up demand for the performance that could not be satisfied by even such a large capacity.

Sure, some of that demand is linked to the glamour of the event itself: in the front rows of the audience prime ministers, dignitaries and other celebrities mingle with regular folks. But a lot of this demand has to do with the emotion of the performance itself; and what about the numerous opera fans who could not afford to fly half the world over for the event? Television viewing was only limited to those having access to the broadcast as syndicated by RAI – despite being such an important event, its appeal was limited to those who enjoy hearing people sing – mostly in Italian – for two or three hours. Not a mass audience.

Finally, there are those who would  not enjoy the full performance, but would not mind an excerpt or two. We realized that the first thing that technology could add to the performance was to broaden its access.

But that was not all: not everyone is a profound connoisseur of each opera, or of the key performers; not everybody reads Italian (the language in which many librettos are written); and even for those who do, understanding what is being sung is sometimes hard, making following the theatrical action a challenge.

We imagined a scenario where someone could watch the live performance and read the libretto, with an option to have it translated, follow the musical score, read the biographies of the performers as well as information about the Arena and – ultimately – purchase recordings as well as merchandising materials. In short, we anticipated in 1999 what is today a totally common behaviour of our kids when watching a movie in television.

Therefore it was clear we could also add to the performance by providing richer, more articulated content.

The final area of improvement could maybe fit in this second category, but I think it deserves a special mention. We all have experienced how much an expert commentary can add to the visit of an art show: the trained eye sees details that would escape the inexperienced, and gently guide the visitor to a much more intelligent and profound viewing experience.

This is not unlike what sports commentators do for us when watching a performance: they dig out the right statistics, comment performance comparing it with that of other athletes or of the same athlete in other occasions, making sure we do not miss the highlights of the event. This is something that’s completely impossible in a theatre, where the role of the audience is completely passive.

For this event, therefore, we decided to add to our Internet event the expert guide of Angelo Foletto, then the classical music critic of national daily “la Repubblica”, widely recognized as one of Italy’s leading music critics: as the performance progressed, Foletto would add his own commentary – simultaneously translated into english.

The project was given a name: 

e-Aida bianco

to keep it in the same track as the then familiar IBM e-business moniker, and a tag-line which is in itself an interesting story.

The tag-line which emerged during the inception phase (reflecting closely the key features outlined above) was:

Reach & Rich

which I personally thought was very nice and compact; even I had to admit however that it had a major problem, as it did not translate well into Italian, a critical flaw not so much for the end viewers, but for a “selling” phase where most of the key players we had to convince were Italian. After a little wrangling, being completed outnumbered I caved in, and we settled on an easier

What about the Others?

where “the Others” are all the categories other than the hard-core opera fans that represented the current audience of the performance until now. “What about the Others?” became the default answer to all kinds of criticism and the rallying cry of the team pulling all-nighters to complete this project.

A selling job

We had our story: now we needed to embark in selling it to each of the players.

The first key piece of the puzzle was to convince the Cassa di Risparmio, Verona’s largest bank and most generous sponsor for the Foundation; the Cassa is a very important IBM client and once we won their enthusiasm they opened for us the doors of the Foundation which in turn would grant us the attention of the key performers.

Moreover we knew that the timing would become even tighter as we progressed: most of the lead singers would only arrive days before the performance, way past our point of no return. To improve our chances, we leaned heavily on the Foundation’s intimate knowledge of these artists: in fact through them we learned that the Argentinian tenor José Cura was a technology enthusiast: we therefore decided to make sure he would be firmly on our side before contacting the other singers, using his endorsement to appease the fears of other, less technology-prone artists.

As timing was so tight, these interviews took place between rehearsals, and one of my memories revolves around me loitering in the half-built stage of the Arena for a few days, waiting for my fifteen minutes with one or the other of these key players.

Conductor Daniel Oren proved to be no problem at all, while Director PierLuigi Pizzi had appreciated some of the work that IBM had done at La Scala and therefore was willing to trust us even though we had very little to show when we spoke to him.

Once the lead performers were sold on the project, we used them to make sure the orchestra, the choir, the extras and the technical personnel were equally motivated to participate (thank God without the need for individual conversations…) – of course in all these dealings the fact we were also heavily endorsed by the Foundation carried a lot of weight, but I cannot count the times we used our tagline – “What about the Others?” – to respond to a question.

The technical setup

Again, you must remember what was the state of technology in 1999: blogs had been technically invented a couple of years before, but the word “Blog” itself had just appeared and was certainly not in common use. Popular CMS platforms like the ones we know today would not appear until later (Blogger – december, 1999; WordPress – 2001; Typepad – 2003) so, essentially all of the infrastructure of the website had to be written using plain HTML, mainly thanks to the work of the IBM.com technical team coordinated by Paolo Galli, who then worked at IBM Communications.

1999 e-Aida minisite Screenshot

The streaming system was ultimately provided by a young company – broadcast.com – which had been purchased by Yahoo! months before; I remember the negotiation with the traffic police to allow their truck to be stationed next to that of RAI to allow a physical cable to run from one to the other which beamed the video to the satellite uplink which would feed it to the U.S.-based datacenter to serve viewers worldwide.

A funny small detail was that for their own programming reasons, RAI decided to delay its broadcast by six minutes, with the result that our Internet video, even after all the bouncing on and off satellites was about five minutes ahead of the televised one, despite coming out of the same mixer in the Arena parking lot!!!

The promotion of the event was another challenge. We did not have a dime to spend on advertising (as I mentioned already, the whole project was rather expensive even without that) but the most interesting event in the word will be a flop if nobody knows you’re holding it. Luckily we had anticipated this and, although Social Media in their present form did not exist then, we had scoured the web for their ancestors, i.e. bulletin boards and Newsgroups dedicated to Opera; their admins had been contacted and offered tidbits and materials, interviews and photographs which they could use to develop their own storylines and in the meanwhile alert their members about this upcoming event.

We have no precise logs about where people learned about e-Aida, but since there was no other form of publicity (except the websites of the sponsors and of the Foundation) we figured that the 72% of Internet attendees which came from outside of Italy were the direct result of this type of promotion.

The Media

Being this under the hat of Communications, of course Media were involved, but being tickets to the performance under strict embargo by the Arena di Verona Foundation, we could obtain only 40 seats which were allocated to ensure maximum geographical coverage. Of the many articles that appeared the following day, this short Associated Press dispatch is the one I remember most fondly:

“The sound was awful, the video was jerky, but IBM’s e-Aida sure made history tonight”

1999 06 25 le RepubblicaAmazingly, if you search the web, you still find online the article posted by la Repubblica which speaks of a “telematic stage” and of a “webcast”! In fact media seats were so scarce that my colleague Alessandra Maestri, who managed the international Media program together with her client counterpart Bruno Contigiani had to content herself with a stool in the room where Mr. Foletto was writing his commentary during the performance while for myself, I had my own ticket I had purchased months in advance as I usually did. I never told anybody about this fact, not to be pressured into giving it up for some last-minute media representative.

Conclusion

At the same time as the 15,000 audience was attending live, over 43,000 other people viewed the Internet broadcast for an average of 47 minutes, demonstrating beyond doubt how thanks to the Internet an artistic performance could appeal to a much broader audience, making their life better.

Was it a successful project?

To answer this, I will use the words of a final key player I haven’t mentioned so far, Joerg Winkelmann, then IBM Vice-President, EMEA Communications:

[…] we allocated the needed budget for the project based on my personal conviction that transmitting such a land mark cultural event over the internet in those days would not only boost the credibility of IBM’s global e-business strategy, but also underline the company’s cultural tradition and societal heritage.

It was the combination of making such things technically possible and demonstrate implication for business and IBM’s dedication to local cultures and societies which later led us to create our Smarter Planet and Smarter City strategies.

All of this with quite substantial risk, given the audio/video and transmission limitations of the internet in those days. But we took the risk, and thanks to flawless execution of all parties we landed a huge and much admired success.

Today’s users are lucky, however, because in the meanwhile we have invented the Time Machine and you can join the 15,000 live spectators and the 43,000 early adopters and sample the performance in its full splendor:

P.S. if you could pan the camera all the way to your right, five or six ranks from the bottom you would see in the dark one spectator whose face was lit by the glow of the screen of the computer in front of him as he was looking at statistics of users logged into the Broadcast.com live feed.

Just sayin’…