George Parker: Xerox keeps on fumbling

With the recent news that Xerox is about to split itself into two units, in common with other once great companies such as HP, Yahoo and EBay that have fallen on increasingly hard times, I am reminded of the years I worked on the account at Y&R back in the nineties. It was fucked up then, it’s even more fucked up now.

As the inventor of the Xerox 914 dry copier in 1963, they literally had a license to print money. You could only lease the machine and you paid a few cents for every single copy. For ten years they had the exclusive patents and trousered mega millions. Their first ad agency was Papert Koenig & Lois, who launched the 914 with a brilliant spot featuring a ten year old girl using the machine. It created a raft of complaints from competitive companies who claimed that a little girl couldn’t possibly use this sophisticated machine.

PKL then reshot the spot, only this time, they used a chimp instead of the girl. The sign off was… “The Xerox 914. So simple, even a monkey can use it.” In the inevitable words of George Lois… “Fuck ‘em!”

Meantime Xerox PARC, their Palo Alto research hub was inventing everything under the sun, including the Alto, the world’s first personal computer, the graphical user interface (GUI), the laser printer, Ethernet networking technology and a ton of other stuff. All of this was ignored while the 914 money machine was cranking out humungous profits. Then the patents ran out and the Japanese started killing them. And they still didn’t get of their arse and bring any of this stuff to market.

There’s the famous story about Steve Jobs being invited to visit PARC (Talk about putting the fox in the hen house) and being stunned at what he saw. He asked what they were doing with it… Nothing, they replied. So he went back to Apple hired PARC’s major brains and the Lisa/Mac was born.

There’s a classic book. Fumbling The Future. First published in 1988, which is enough to make you weep at how ignorant Xerox senior management was at implementing a strategy that could take advantage of PARC. But over the years nothing changed. When I was doing my Xerox-Y&R stint, I was present at a meeting at Xerox corporate headquarters where their new corporate identity program was unveiled.

For years their tag line was… “Xerox – The Document Company.” They paid Landor Associates three million fucking dollars to come up with something better. With much fanfare the new line was unveiled… “The Document Company – Xerox” to be met with somewhat muted applause. Why am I not surprised that Landor is part of the Poisoned Dwarf’s evil empire?

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.

3 comments

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    Very true George. Their issue was always ‘people won’t buy new technologies from an old school copier company’. So why they didn’t bankroll a subsidiary/merger and market the new tech under a new Brand and organisation i don’t know.

    The saddest illustration I can recall of the company’s shortcomings was the great announcement that the man who had invented the daisywheel printer (remember them) had, after years of development, created ‘the silent typewriter’. It was truly an amazing piece of technology, involving beautiful, finely balanced weights that pressed the wheel to the paper. But it was expensive, and Xerox had just spent a couple of years and millions of dollars getting it ready for market, so they didn’t like our UK Marketing response; “it’s 1990 guys, have you ever heard of something called a Word Processor?”

    They still made them, and threw good marketing money after bad. I wonder if they are still in some Indiana Jones warehouse somewhere…

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    George, While your statements of Xerox’s failures are well known and true, it’s interesting that you fail to discuss any of their successes. For example, you make no comment at all about how Xerox has dominated the high-high-end publishing and printing field, or that almost single handedly they created the entire multi-billion dollar print-on-demand industry, or that it is the highly respected leader in Managed Print Services. But I guess the gratuitous vitriol and foul language you spew in your article should alert your readers that in reality you are just a low-class kind of guy with a huge chip-on-his shoulder about Xerox. Even with Xerox’s failures, I have far more respect for them than I do for you.

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    @Richard H.
    My goodness, if my “gratuitous vitriol and foul language” have upset you, I apologize for being a low class kind of guy with a huge chip on my shoulder. That’s what comes of working in the ad biz for so long. And what exactly is it that you do at Xerox?