EXCLUSIVE: Inside Boole & Babbage’s Trek “Vision”

riker-yeahhSix and a half years ago, a video appeared on YouTube with this description: "This is a video of Riker trying to sell something; I'm not sure what exactly." 

What followed was a grainy, camcorder-aimed-at-a-television recording of Jonathan Frakes pitching some sort of computer management software to a hapless IT technician, panicking about losing control of an airline ticket reservation system.

In the years that followed, a few other copies of this video have appeared online - but now, TrekCore has a direct-from-the-source copy of Boole & Babbage's "The Vision", pulled right from the original VHS tape distributed to clients back in 1993.

I've always been curious about this production, and have acquired a number of pieces from this campaign (much of which is seen below), even managed to have my VHS tape autographed by Jonathan Frakes - but I really wanted the inside story about how this whole marketing campaign came together.

After a bit of searching, I was able to track down Pat Letsos - a senior marketing director at Boole & Babbage during the time this video was produced - and she took the time to speak with me about how this commercial came to be, how Jonathan Frakes got nabbed for the role, and the big question everybody asks: how much did this thing cost!?

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TrekCore: What was your job at Boole & Babbage at the time the Star Trek: The Next Generation campaign was produced? What was your role in the campaign?

Pat Letsos: My position at Boole & Babbage was as the Senior Marketing Communications Director reporting to Saverio Merlo - Executive Vice President of Worldwide Marketing - who handled final negotiations with the Paramount folks and Jonathan Frakes’ agents.

Our marketing group handled internal and external communications, as well as product marketing. I highlight this because the Boole & Babbage Star Trek campaign was as much an internal campaign as an external campaign. We needed to make sure everyone knew we were voyaging into the next generation!

My role in the campaign was multifaceted, from working hand-in-hand with our advertising agency and our internal team to exploit the use of the Star Trek property to ensuring we were complying with the licensing agreements and meeting trademark requirements. Going on the road with the campaign to greet customers and escorting Jonathan Frakes was, of course, the best part of it.

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A two-page spread published in several prominent technology magazines.

TrekCore: How was it decided to license The Next Generation to market Boole & Babbage’s services?

Letsos: Boole & Babbage, founded in 1967, was a pioneer or “the old lady” in the software industry. The company had made millions ensuring commercial data centers powered with those behemoth IBM mainframes kept on humming and business operations kept cha-chinging.

Fast forward to the 1990’s and the computing environment - or “enterprise” as it had come to be known - was a sprawling conglomeration of disparate machines and devices from multiple vendors. There were ever-increasing complexities to keep applications running 24/7 in the Internet Age and sweeping challenges to manage, automate and secure information across the computing environment.

Boole & Babbage needed a dramatic way to reach its customer base (which our advertising agency statistically profiled as fitting the Star Trek fan base) and communicate that it had gone where no one else had dared to go! It had a solution and new message to get out to its customers. The company needed a creative, engaging way to generate buzz and to dress up its image.

At the time of the campaign, the company had a unique market opportunity in helping Fortune 500 companies manage the computing enterprise with its Command Post solution. Just like the bridge on the USS Enterprise, the B&B solution provided data center managers with single point-of-control.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was a natural fit for our product message, and so much fun for everyone - talk about a way to shed the stodgy old lady image! The whole company got behind the campaign, even those outside U.S. markets.

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Left: A letter sent to B&B clients with the full media kit (video and print material).
Right: A Boole & Babbage Trek-branded mouse pad.

TrekCore: What was the process to get approval to film on the Star Trek sets, and to use Trek imagery and characters? I imagine that it wasn't an easy process, since you were creating a for-profit advertisement using Paramount’s property.

Letsos: We were fortunate – our timing was good. I believe we were the first technology-based company to approach Paramount Studios, which was to our benefit. We took a minimalist approach with the licensing group.

Prior to Boole & Babbage, Paramount had primarily been licensing the Trek brand to providers of trinkets and t-shirts. Since working with a technology business-to-business brand had not been done before, this created a bit of a challenge and we ended up negotiating non-exclusive rights for our campaign.

We gave the licensing people at Paramount a clear and detailed plan of how we would use the Star Trek property – the number of advertisements, brochures, trade shows, etc. – and negotiated the ability to contract with Next Generation actors.

Negotiations to get Jonathan Frakes on board as our spokesperson were separate; when all the contracts were completed, they were reviewed by company attorneys – and the rest is history.

TrekCore: There was a lot of print material made up to go with the campaign, including two fairly unique posters – did the Paramount marketing department create them (as the ‘blueprint’ one especially features a lot of specific graphic work), or was that done by your team?

Letsos: Our advertising agency created the print side of the campaign. I think that the blueprint poster, however, may have been a licensed poster which we were able to adapt with our logo and headline. These posters were extremely popular with our employees as well as our customers.

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Two 'Next Generation' posters - measuring 24" x 36" - exclusive to the campaign.

TrekCore: Once everything was locked down with Paramount, “The Vision” – the six-minute promotional video with Jonathan Frakes – was filmed on the Enterprise bridge set during the show’s sixth season. What was that production like?

Letsos: It was definitely fun being on the set and seeing the bridge and the captain’s chair. We had the good fortune to tape the video at just the right time – we knew the set would be torn down after the end of the show, so we used the opportunity to get permission to use the bridge in “The Vision”.

The shoot was a closed set, so there we didn't see any of the other cast, but there were plenty of other fully-costumed characters at the studio cafeteria.

TrekCore: Here’s the big question – what was the cost of production and licensing? I’ve read unsourced quotes of something like a $75,000-per-year licensing fee, but I don’t know how accurate that is.

Letsos: I believe our licensing fee with Paramount for was more like $90,000, with an option for annual renewal – something we renewed for for three years. The license also included the ability to use characters like Will Riker under the terms of the agreement. This was such a great fit for Boole & Babbage, and we really felt like we got the deal at a bargain price.

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Boole & Babbage's "The Vision" on VHS, autographed by Jonathan Frakes.

Taking on the Next Generation campaign sharpened our marketing strategy and shifted focus to this corporate campaign. We didn't increase our marketing communications budget overall, but shifted tactics to cut out some product spotlight advertising and regional trade shows.While the Paramount license included the rights to use Commander Riker, it didn’t include Jonathan Frakes’ participation – the ‘celebrity spokesperson’ contract with the actor was a separate agreement.

TrekCore: Was the plan always to have one of the show’s cast included in the video and in the larger campaign?

Letsos: Absolutely. We negotiated to include cast as part of the overall agreement with Paramount. This campaign was about touch points, and it was important for us to reach out as closely and broadly as we could with our customer base to get our message out.

Our customers went wild with this campaign and meeting Commander Riker in person. The only time Frakes appeared in character was in the video; at other engagements, he was featured as a personality, which helped us keep costs manageable.

TrekCore: I’ve got a copy of some of the marketing material sent out to B&B customers, which includes several interviews with Frakes. A lot of the “quotes” are very campaign-focused, like: 

“Just as the Bridge centralizes the functions necessary to control the USS Enterprise, Boole’s products centralize data processing information to allow centralized control of today’s complex information systems.”

Did your marketing team have a hand in crafting those responses, or was it all from Frakes and his representatives?

Letsos: Yes, we wrote and his people approved; that’s pretty much the industry standard. However, I will say that Frakes was great to work with, and the more he met our customers at tradeshows and saw our products, the more comfortable he was with what he was touting.

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A fold-out trade show poster, with several "quotes" from Jonathan Frakes.

TrekCore: So was Jonathan Frakes the first choice, or had you attempted to get one of the other actors involved first?

Letsos: Commander Riker was always our Number One! And Frakes was always so gracious with our customers; he’d take the time to sign autographs, accommodate photo requests, and answer fan questions.

TrekCore: Tell us a little more about the trade show appearances. I understand the B&B team wore Starfleet uniforms on the floor in keeping with the Trek theme; were they supplied by Paramount or did you have to go costume shopping?

Letsos: No, we didn't have to go shopping! We got the licensed uniform patterns from The Next Generation and had them made – though we blended the two uniform styles together, so some of the staff wore the early-season jumpsuits and others wore the later-season jackets.

Those communicator pins were wore were the real licensed Paramount products, and were highly sought after when we gave away them at limited customer events.

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Jonathan Frakes - with his arm around Pat Letsos - stands with the trade show team.

The first trade show in Reno was our most impactful, because that’s when customers first learned we had hooked up with Star Trek – other vendors were upset because everybody left their booths to come to ours when our team showed up on the floor with Jonathan Frakes in tow!

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As far as I know, the story behind this campaign has never been published to this degree - and I want to thank Pat Letsos for working with us to fill in this especially unique gap in Star Trek history.

  • Daniel Shock

    Very cool! I had never seen this. Love this stuff!

  • John

    Finding the story and marketing materials was a great find! I’ve seen the vid many times on youtube, but never saw it back in 1993. It actually felt strange to see Trek hawk this stuff. It’s great to finally know where this came from and how it all came together.

    Awesome job.

  • jerr

    what timing. I just saw that for the first time last week. Thanx for the “behind the scenes”!

  • Lenonn

    Thanks for posting this article. Since I first saw the video on YouTube, I wondered what was the deal with the ad.

    • Justin Olson

      Yes, in fact, this was supposed to be Riker’s original delusion in “Frame of Mind.” Berman and Piller felt it was too frightening for television, so the more mild story of a man accused of a horrible murder living in an abusive alien mental hospital was substituted.

  • tootapple

    Did you get director and/or DP information? Honestly, the footage in the office feels very modern, in terms of lighting, composition and camera movement. The director definitely had a style that comes through fully.

  • Thomas

    And yet, I still don’t know what they were actually selling…

  • ThunderBlade

    Thank you very much for this research!

  • archer9234

    I wonder what other things exist with TNG or even the other shows. It be fun if they still have the footage of Riker and release it as small bonus material.

    • BrianRoskamp

      I think it would be a good easter egg (similar to Brent Spiner reciting Shakespear in makeup on the S1 set), but doesn’t warrant an actual special feature. As I stated before, rights may be an issue.

  • SpaceCadet

    They’re selling an automation/management program, office software basically. Pretty dry infomercial not that most are that good anyway. I really wouldn’t need or want this on any blu-ray collection. I couldn’t even finish watching it to the end.

    • BrianRoskamp

      While I disagree with not being able to watch it, I’m a software engineer and thought it was well done. I first saw in high school 5-10 years ago and I enjoyed it then too. It’s nice to be able to see the characters again in this ‘rare’ footage from outside the episodes but with the actor’s still in character.

      Whether it should or should not be on the blurays would be a tough choice, but getting the rights may be an issue. This company paid for the rights to TNG and then paid to have it produced. I would imagine they’d have an issue with CBS using their money to sell sets and would want some sort of compensation. Whether or not their contract covered this scenario, I don’t know.

  • Carlos Teran

    It’s a great story. Thank you for sharing the inside view.

  • Tony Todd’s Tears

    Frakes was reading from a cue card.

  • BrianRoskamp

    My only complaint with the commercial was the sound effects, they had the rights to use the logos, sets, characters, graphics, visual effects, but almost all of the sound effects were either generic computer beeps or from TOS.

  • Leon

    It’s really jarring to see the bridge of the Enterprise, which has aged incredibly well, showing crappy 80′s graphics and token ring networking.