THE BLOG
09/25/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2014

What I Learned From Larry Ellison: Lessons in Tech Marketing

When I read the tweets that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison had stepped down, an enduring lyric jumped to mind. I tweeted back: The day the music died.

Don McLean's hit, "American Pie," pays homage to three rockers, Buddy Holly among them, who perished in a 1959 plane crash. The loss of the musicians and their music was seminal. So too is Ellison's announcement.

Of course, the 70-year-old billionaire hasn't died just yet. He's come close while body surfing, racing his sloop, Sayonara, and maybe strafing his old rival, Hasso Plattner, by private jet. Who knows. But this tech rock star made it clear last week he's turning a page, and I think it's Oracle first, then later Ellison, that we'll mourn.

For now, there's much to consider about the man, his legacy, the computing behemoth he built, and to wonder who will carry on and in what tradition.

My perspective on Ellison and Oracle is unique. I worked with him only a few times; access for consultants was always guarded. Even so, from 1993 to 2001, my firm, Applied Communications, prospered as Oracle's PR agency of record through two successful and sometimes contentious stints. Look closely and you'd see us behind Larry's big ideas, from media servers to network computers. When in 1995, Ellison famously declared, "The PC is a ridiculous device," we parlayed his quip (intentional or impulsive, no one knew) into a referendum on balky, over-priced Windows machines. We didn't minimize his vitriol; we maximized it. For this brag and others, Ellison took heat. After all, critics would tease, he never sold a single NC (aka, Network Computer). But the play we ran, by way of a budding lexicon of strategies, was a Red Herring. Whatever shame Ellison endured, he happily traded for blunting Microsoft's attack on the IT stack and the placement of Oracle at its center. Network Computing, the precursor to today's cloud computing schemes, was hatched.

What I learned from Larry was that giants can be questioned and beaten, particularly through debate and a kind of managed dissonance. It was said that Ellison never cared what anyone thought of him. But we knew better when deputies tee'd up photo-ops at his Japanese villa. What in fact Ellison was so good at doing was to observe the obvious, colorfully and ruefully, and let the proverbial shit hit the fan. Once done, he delivered to what the tech marketing magazine, MC, dubbed Oracle's Shock Troops of Mindshare a mess to manage. Larry's point: Now you have something to work with; before, you had nothing.

Ellison's management style, then and now, is anathema to most executives, particularly marketing and communications chiefs and self-styled reputation experts. To corporate America, fit is valued over friction and symmetric dialog is judged most fair and effective, a premise I am happy to poke.

But Ellison, the world's 5th most wealthy person, owes his success to an obsession for asymmetry. The company he ran for 37 years was a living laboratory in search of unfair advantage and dislocation potentials. It preyed first upon IBM's closed databases and mowed through many more stalwarts and startups, from Informix and Sybase (databases) to PeopleSoft (business applications) to Microsoft (SQL servers) and back again to IBM (servers).

What I learned from Larry is that every function of a company is a competitive function. If the makers of a message, for example, can endure debate, if they are prepared to counter a rebuttal, and if their position has a basis of truth, then communications can be used not simply to garner good tidings, but to re-gear a market's conversation and the buying behavior that results from a spirited dialog. Sure, one can subscribe to storytelling, authenticity, advocacy and engagement -- euphemisms for happy-talk PR -- but these are only the soft half of the communicator's purpose: To build and sustain relative competitive advantage. Ellison played the rougher game, fair and square, without apology and in so doing proved its full potential.

Oracle's new co-CEOs, tech veterans Safra Catz and Mark Hurd are lately busy convincing Wall Street and nervous CIO customers that, really, nothing has changed. Larry's still on site. But I think it's done. The music of Larry has gone silent, at least at Oracle. Like Intel, Microsoft, Apple and others whose founders are now gone or going, I expect Oracle to become more like its sheepish competitors because Ellison's thick skin and raw authority can only be mimicked.

Tech's new titans haven't waited for Gordon Moore or Bill Gates to depart. The likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are already driving new visions to fruition, yet to a great extent as Larry might advise them to do. They are demanding leaders who seem as cruel and quick as Ellison or his late friend, Steve Jobs. Accordingly, they leave little doubt as to what must be done and who must be rewarded and defeated.

Maybe, for awhile, Larry Ellison will lend his talents and riches to new asymmetrical games. But for Oracle, we as might well sing it, This'll be the day that I die.