Dear Bill: Get Real About the Makeover As Microsoft's CEO tries to soften his image to better manage Capitol Hill, our reporter calls in experts to suggest new looks and styles that might do the trick.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – DEAR BILL,
You don't know me, but I've seen you all over the place in the past few months. Congratulations on your recent success as a TV star! I'd had the impression you were an aloof, uncaring technocrat. But your appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and 20/20 made me realize that you're not just smart and rich, but also personable, witty--and a budding vocalist. (Great rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Barbara Walters really seemed to enjoy it.) You brought this folksy image to Washington, D.C., too, maintaining your composure as those Paul Bunyan wannabes in the Senate threatened to chop your company into a zillion pieces. And I see you're working as a pitchman for Callaway golf clubs, sharing your love of and frustration with the game with 60 Minutes viewers and FORTUNE readers. (Callaway's really counting on you to boost flagging sales--and on Titanic crooner Celine Dion, who soon will also be hawking their clubs in ads.)
Though your handlers tell me otherwise, I've noticed that your appearance has changed as you've evolved from a press-shy tycoon into a talking head. You've shed the unkempt coif in favor of a trimmer cut and jettisoned shapeless patterned sweaters for fitted ones. I'm not qualified to judge your new look--I'm more of a ripped jeans and baseball cap kind of guy. So I called in some top image consultants, like Steve Zdatny, a West Virginia University professor who specializes in the politics and aesthetics of hair, and Daniel DiCriscio, who transformed Paula Jones from an Arkansas nobody into a sleek Washington pol. Their verdict: Good start, Bill, but you've got a ways to go.
Don't freak out--according to Camille Lavington, author of You've Only Got Three Seconds, you have a lot going for you, including boyish charm and a great pair of blue eyes. "He looks like apple-pie America," she tells me, "like he's from Iowa." She's dying to put you in a Gap turtleneck to make you "look more like a regular guy." DiCriscio is more ambitious, wanting to dress you in a trendy monochromatic suit-and-tie combo, a la Tom Cruise. In the meantime, lose those glasses for more stylish ones or for contacts. As a final touch, says DiCriscio, "I'd like to see the bangs and top of the hair grown out and I'd richen up the color by adding some highlights...and [darken] the eyebrows."
Too much too fast? Fine. Shareholders might go El Nino if you opted for a mainstream look--it might appear that you were buying in to old-style IBM culture. Definitely don't want that. How about phasing out the techno-geek look? That's what Catherine Harwood, a media coach in Orlando, recommends. She says: "With the glasses and sweater together, the only thing that's missing is a plastic pocket protector." She suggests a blue oxford and some khakis.
As for your public persona, remember that anything you do reflects on Microsoft. That's why you get a thumbs-down on the golf spots. You may have thought they would humanize you, but they just left viewers wondering what you were doing on a golf course. Says Clive Chajet, who runs his own image consulting firm in Manhattan: "I presume Mr. Gates wears underwear. So why doesn't he advertise that instead--it's as logical as him selling golf clubs!" Better to stick with tech-related projects, charities, and appearances. During the photo ops, keep those cameras at bay. No one looks good too close up.
Bill, everyone wishes you the best with your budding TV career--we're not a bunch of nasty high schoolers taunting the nerdy kid. "We know Bill Gates, but we want to see who Bill is--be more personable and let us all in," DiCriscio says. Let me know if you want company shopping at the Gap.
Best, HENRY GOLDBLATT