HPE CMO Jim Jackson: Neri’s ‘Epic’ Keynote At The Las Vegas Sphere Raises The Bar For Tech Conferences

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Executive Vice President and CMO Jim Jackson and his marketing team were determined to break new ground with the first-ever corporate keynote at the $2.3 billion technology marvel known as the Sphere.

Once HPE President and CEO Antonio Neri signed off on the Sphere address, he began “pushing” and “challenging” the marketing and communications team to deliver an experience that went far beyond the traditional keynote, said Jackson.

“We didn’t want people to just hear the message,” he said. “We wanted them to experience it and to have an experience they could never get again.”

That was exactly what happened when the Sphere went dark for Neri’s keynote address at HPE Discover on June 18. The first statement on the 160,000-square-foot LED circular canvas was Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” declaration in Greek: “All mankind by nature desires to know.” That bold statement—recognizing AI as the next great tool that can make anything possible—was followed by a dazzling flight into majestic mountains, oceans and a redwood forest.

“This morning the sun rose over the mountains,” a voice-of-God- like narrator told the audience. “Tides shifted at the shore. And redwoods stretch their limbs to the sky. All the while technology was advancing. Holding our natural world in balance with human progress is challenging. Now as the age of insight advances there is hope. AI holds the key to unlocking infinite possibilities for our planet.”

[RELATED: Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang: HPE-Nvidia Is A ‘Massive Partnership,’ Exits Sphere Stage With A ‘Go HPE!’]

The keynote marked the emergence of HPE as a Generative AI enterprise power to be reckoned with—a force to bring AI for the first time ever into the enterprise side-by-side with AI powerhouse Nvidia and Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang.

The presentation also marked the formal unveiling of the first-ever co-developed and co-branded HPE offering: Nvidia AI Computing By HPE, including a breakthrough turnkey HPE Private Cloud AI service.

“We knew we had a really good story in AI, but there is so much noise in the market we needed a catalyst to help us rise above that, to break through,” said Jackson. “We were looking at how to create this market moment where more eyes were on HPE, and we were able to do that.”

The aim from the outset was to set a “new bar” for delivering a compelling immersive message in a bold new way at a technology conference, said Jackson. “We wanted to excite, motivate and get a lot of energy from our customers, partners, influencers and team members,” he said.

Mission accomplished. The more than 10,000 customers and 3,900 partner attendees were blown away by the HPE Discover keynote experience and the HPE AI story.

“Amazing!” Rob Schaeffer, president and CRO of e360, a top HPE partner based in Concord, Calif., wrote in a text message to Neri after the keynote address. “Inspiring! You have raised the bar for us all. Brilliant days ahead for all of us in the HPE community. Thank you.”

Jackson said he believes the immersive Sphere experience is going to “revolutionize the way people and brands” tell their stories in the years ahead. “I am proud that HPE is blazing that trail,” he said. “This is a whole new approach to brand storytelling with multimedia, multilevel activation that really brings your story to life. There is an energy and excitement. It is not about just hearing and seeing the message. It is experiencing it. You can bring in things like the chairs actually moving when certain big points are happening. We were able to bring that forward and orchestrate that.”

Jackson said the “first-mover” advantage and the buzz it created for HPE were key to the Sphere keynote.

The Journey To The Sphere

The long journey to the Sphere keynote began two years ago when the Sphere was still under construction, recalled HPE Vice President of Global Marketing and Hybrid Cloud Jason Newton, one of the early backers of the Sphere address.

“We did our first tour with hard hats when it was a dirt lot,” said Newton, recalling the visit that he, Jackson and key members of the team made to the site to meet with Sphere CEO James Dolan. “We met in Jim Dolan’s trailer and we saw our first promotional video of what was possible. We walked inside. It wasn’t anywhere near complete.”

At the time, HPE’s marketing team was curious about the sphere- like structure going up next to the Venetian hotel and conference center where HPE has held HPE Discover for a number of years. “We were like they’re building this giant ball, what’s that all about? So we decided to take a tour,” said Newton.

That visit led to a visit to the venue nearly a year ago by Neri, who signed off on the ambitious plan to make a big bold statement on HPE’s Generative AI strategy and product portfolio. “Credit goes to Antonio. When he made the commitment, he said the keynote was going to be about our AI strategy for the enterprise with one guest on stage and it was going to be Jensen Huang,” said Newton.

Crafting the 60-Minute Keynote Experience

The HPE team looked at the storytelling experience as almost akin to making a movie. For script development and production the team hired Robin Fisher Roffer, founder and CEO of Big Fish Marketing; Sami Saaud, founder and chief creative officer of No Filter; Kristi Calhoon and Rob Pace of i4D (HPE’s global event partner) and a host of other creative, animation, and video experts.

“We knew the Sphere was a different animal from the get-go and the way that we approached a keynote in the past we couldn’t do that in this venue,” said Newton. “We assembled really a great team around us.”

The address focused on everything from HPE’s impressive history and culture as a Silicon Valley innovator to the power of AI to solve the world’s biggest problems. “We’ve always been looking for tools and tools combined with the human mind is what makes everything possible, and AI is the next great tool,” said Newton. “I literally put that saying in Greek on the screen. We had this metaphor of the tool, the innovations we created from the oscilloscope and calculator to now and what we are doing with supercomputers and AI. It has all been a progression.”

HPE’s 84-year history with its roots in the founding of HP by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard made up the first chapter of the keynote. “We wanted to express that and talk about how that was still a guiding force in our culture and the way that we deal with our customers,” he said.

The second chapter was about HPE’s customers and its ability to partner and bring its ecosystem together to drive business outcomes. That manifested in a skyscraper of floating bubbles that had the logos of about 50 HPE customers. “That scene itself was our most complicated. From a graphical perspective, it took three to four days just to render that one scene,” said Newton.

Jackson said the HPE approach “totally flipped the script” of the usual keynote. “We thought about this as how do we produce 60 minutes of awesomeness?” he said. “How do we think differently? So we built it in chapters and we really framed it as what do we want to accomplish in each chapter? And how does it all fit together? That also brings in the customer stories we wanted to tell with BMW, GE Aircraft and the montage of everything we are doing for multiple different customers around stadiums and experiences.”

The address also focused on the HPE culture of advancing the way people live and work. “We are a purpose-driven company and at the end of the day that really matters to us,” said Jackson. “We wanted to bring that forward and have people feel and experience it. Sometimes you can hear and see the words. What the Sphere enabled us to do is to bring that experiential element forward where you are touching different senses.”

The Reward: The Reaction From Partners And Customers

Jackson and Newton couldn’t be happier with the outcome of the big event.

Newton says the “return” on the Sphere big bet was evident in the awe-inspired responses from partners and customers. “My favorite thing was when we were in the show looking around at the audience and watching their reactions with the ‘oohs and aahs’ and the gasps,” he said. “Then when we were walking out of the keynote in the tunnel you could hear the chatter and people talking about it.”

To that point, Newton said: “People don’t always remember exactly what you said, but they always remember how you made them feel. The value is the way we made our customers and our partners feel so they could experience who we are and not just hear the story of who we are. You can’t put a price on that.”

Jackson said the words “energy” and “swagger” came up time and time again in partner and customer responses to the keynote.

HPE’s position as a “partner-first” company was indeed a critical factor in the Sphere HPE AI party, said Jackson.

“We wanted to excite them,” he said. “When we look at how it all came together—the message, the venue, the audience, the timing—it was a perfect storm for us.”

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