Cutting Room: A Keys figure in BlackBerry’s troubles


With doubts still surrounding BlackBerry’s future, Ian White argues its troubles this year began as early as the launch of its Z10 smartphone

I suppose many of us have our own idea of when the game was up for BlackBerry. You know, that moment when you can see the iceberg dead ahead but the bloke steering the ship is asleep at the wheel.

Perhaps it was when you saw the YouTube replay of blustering Research in Motion co-founder boss Mike Lazaridis flouncing out of an interview with the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones.

Or it may have been when you listened to the car-crash attempts by UK MD Stephen Bates to avoid answering DJ Nicky Campbell’s “what have you learned from the iPhone” question.

Or could it have been when you heard the astonishing news that the directors of the loss-making company had treated themselves to a £12.5 million 19-seater private jet just eight weeks before firing nearly half the workforce?

All these you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments hinted at a management team out of touch and out of control.

But my own favourite BlackBerry ‘face palm’ moment came at the Z10 launch when the charisma-free BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins wheeled out American R&B superstar Alicia Keys as the manufacturer’s new  ‘global creative director’.

Now, Alicia Keys is a prodigiously talented singer, songwriter, pianist, record producer and actress. But it was hard to work out how the composer of the mega-selling album Songs in A Minor was qualified to help resurrect a stricken and moribund high-tech juggernaut.

As Keys strode out onto the stage dressed in her finest “power-businesswoman-means-business” trouser suit, surely I wasn’t the only person watching the live-streamed event to wonder if Alicia was going to be given a company car, pension contributions and free medical cover.

Then came the shtick that Alicia had been lured to BlackBerry by the amazing qualities of the new BlackBerry 10 OS. At which point two words must have flashed into the minds of every analyst and journalist in the world – “yeah” and “right”.

Leaving aside the moot point that her favourite app, Instagram, isn’t even available on BlackBerry, it was hard to escape the conclusion that some work experience intern had dreamt up the Keys ploy and persuaded a desperate BlackBerry board that such a celebrity endorsement was all that was needed to right the rather serious wrongs that the company was about three years behind the technology curve (pun definitely intended).

I imagine Thorsten’s first reaction to hearing an excited PR team describe Plan Alicia was “who?” And I’d bet that Alicia’s reaction to her agent’s telephone call that probably started “you’re not going to believe this but…” was “who?” Whatever, money talks and no doubt a fee equivalent to another 19-seat private jet was enough to grab Alicia’s attention.

Now there’s nothing new about celebrity endorsement and signing a big name as a brand ambassador – every big company does it. Turn on the TV tonight and you’re likely to run into Al Pacino and Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon and Robert Downey Jr flog, respectively, Sky broadband, EE airtime and HTC phones.

Celebrity endorsement is one thing; pretending that your signed star is one of your valued employees is bone-headed foolishness. It is just unbelievable nonsense and sets you up for ridicule. Which, of course, is exactly what happened as commentators and bloggers around the world just laughed.

Here are two examples selected at random: “Troubled Canadian company forms a ‘special committee’ to generate survival plans and expand BlackBerry 10… Seemingly BlackBerry’s global creative director and full-time singer Alicia Keys wasn’t offered a seat at the table.” (Mobile Entertainment)

And from a YouTube commentator came this no-punches-pulled vitriol: “This is so much bullshit, BlackBerry is simply trying to get someone in entertainment to help them push the product… Her position should have been given to someone who is a real Creative Director, not some artist that doesn’t know shit about the field of being a real tech or engineer.” There are many hundreds more.

How on earth did ‘Plan Alicia’ ever get seriously discussed, let alone implemented?

A Year One business studies student could have told the BlackBerry board that having a saleable hardware and software proposition was more important than concocting a ridiculous celebrity story and could also have predicted the ridicule that would follow.

It’s safe to speculate that Ms Keys, who is not exactly short of a dollar or two, probably trousered enough to buy her own private jet. She will not require a redundancy package when her ‘employment’ is terminated after BlackBerry is most certainly broken up and the remnants of its patents sold to the highest bidder.

Thousands of real BlackBerry employees will not be so fortunate.