What do billboards say about a city?
Jul 3, 2024

What do billboards say about a city?

Shernaz Daver, chief marketing officer at Khosla Ventures, says billboards can be a sign of the times in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, displaying what tech is hot.

San Francisco is one of California’s largest cities and a hub for big tech companies. U.S. Route 101 is a highway that connects north to south — San Francisco with Silicon Valley. This stretch of highway is blanketed with billboards, and they’re pretty much all for tech companies.

For the millions of residents and visitors who commute in and out of the city daily, sometimes for years on end, these billboards are and have for a long time been a way to see where the state of tech is — and where it’s headed.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali sat down with Shernaz Daver, operating partner and chief marketing officer at Khosla Ventures, at her office in Menlo Park to ask her about how the billboards on Highway 101 are a sign of the times.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Shernaz Daver: In Silicon Valley, which tends to be focused very much on tech right now, there is a big highway called 101, that goes about 25 miles north to south. And south would be kind of where the semiconductor companies are, and north would be all the way up to San Francisco. And that’s the freeway that actually has a lot of billboards.

A portrait of Daver
(Courtesy Shernaz Daver)

Lily Jamali: Well so, what makes the billboards here in Silicon Valley and in San Francisco unique compared to other places?

Daver: So, I would say the billboards in Silicon Valley almost reflect the technology and the history of the valley and what kind of shift we’re in overall. Billboards, I would say earlier on, had nothing to do with technology. I think they had a lot to do with retail and hospitals and things like that. With the advent of technology, particularly in the internet, dot-com boom and bust, I think billboards started coming up. And then you had — every billboard had “.com.” You could be anything, and you had “.com.” You could be “Lily,” and it would be “lily.com.”

Jamali: And now it’s “Lily AI.”

Daver: Exactly. And then after a few years “.com” got dropped, and it was a given. And then we kind of saw a lot of these kind of consumer companies. Zynga had billboards; Groupon had billboards. Then you kind of saw Uber having billboards. Lyft had a billboard with a big pink car, kind of jutting out with the mustache. Then you kind of saw cloud billboards. Every other company was a cloud billboard. Today, to your point, it’s all AI. And it kind of reflects where the valley is and where it’s going. And I pretty much assume in a few months, AI will get dropped, because every company will be an AI company, like every company is a “.com” company.

Jamali: So, the billboards are a sign of what’s hot right now. And those trends come and go pretty fast around here, don’t they?

Daver: They do come and go really fast. The interesting part about billboards is studying billboards during recessions. So, we’ve had at least two recessions that I can recall, so the dot-com boom and bust, and then you had 2008. And, then all the billboards disappear on technology. Then you kind of get the hospitals, then you get Stanford Shopping Center, then you get steak, then you get the lawyers.

Jamali: Oh yeah, we have got a lot of lawyers in LA.

Daver: And it’s funny, you know, I was on 101 the other day, and there’s only one lawyer billboard right now, which basically tells me we’re in a boom.

Jamali: We’re in a boom. That’s how you know is when it’s fewer lawyers and a lot more tech companies advertising.

Jamali: So, you’ve been in marketing in Silicon Valley for a number of years. What are some of the most memorable campaigns that you have done, or one memorable campaign that you’ve done, that use billboards?

Daver: So, in the dot-com times, I was at a company called Inktomi, and it was in the search space, very similar to Google and Yahoo, and they also developed technology that allowed computers to bring data to the user faster. And nobody had heard of us. And I actually used billboards pretty effectively at that time to make sure we got the right partners. So, our billboards was situated at exits where we knew companies like Sun Microsystems and Oracle were so that when the employee turned on their exit, the first thing they saw was the Inktomi billboard.

Jamali: And what did that billboard look like?

Daver: So, because the name was so difficult to pronounce, we actually did a billboard that was all yellow, and we did “ink tuh me” and had it pronounced right. And basically said, “Don’t let our name slow you down.” It was a pun on things because we were doing software to allow you to bring data in faster. And first of all, the reason I like that campaign is not many people in tech were doing billboards. And so it seemed like a risky thing, like, mainly, you should be advertising in print magazines or online, but we decided to do billboards. And it actually worked for us in a way, because at the end of the day, the billboards really did help us get customers. It wasn’t like the customer would go, “Oh, I saw the billboard and got it,” but in their subconsciousness, it was like, “Oh, I’ve heard of this company. Let’s look at it,” because it was a company that did really well in engineering, but not really well in everyone hearing about it.

A yellow card that says INK/tuh/me, don't let our name slow you down.
(Courtesy Shernaz Daver)

Jamali: So, if you had to pick one billboard that is the most iconic, what would it be?

Daver: Ever?

Jamali: In Silicon Valley.

Daver: I have to say, I love the Apple billboards, overall. So, there are three things that work with a billboard: one is location, two is repetition, and three is the message. Location just simply means put in a trafficked area. Like if you know everybody is going to stop in traffic at this intersection, buy that billboard, because they have nothing better to do than stare at your billboard, right? And you can’t look at anything. You can listen, but you’re still staring at the billboard.

Jamali: And Apple’s tends to be of the phone, and like, look at these cool pictures you can take with the phone.

Daver: Today. But previously, they did the iMac. When they got the colors of the iMac, they did that one. And so, they do it with all their products, and it’s very targeted, and it’s very smart. And then the second thing to do is you have to have the billboard for a certain amount of time, because repetition matters. And then to your point, the message right? It either has to be no words or a photo, but definitely less than seven words, because that’s the way the human brain computes. We can’t remember more than that.

Jamali: How would you say the internet and social media have changed the way that people advertise on billboards?

Daver: So, there’s a couple of things that’s happened — that’s a good question. There’s a couple of things that happened on billboards, right? One is, we have a lot of digital billboards now, and I’m not sure they’re as effective, but it helps with inventory. So very often, if you’re buying billboards, they’ll go, we can’t get you the tin, that’s the premier one. We’ll get you the digital billboard. And that digital billboard means you are sharing with a bunch of six or seven companies, and you kind of rotate around. And often companies will do that just for, you know, they have a sales conference or something like that. And for a certain amount of time, we did see a lot of money moving over to basically online media and going away, but now it’s kind of coming back full circle where people are going, nope, I need to do outdoor billboard advertising, that’s working better for me. Because people are still in cars. They are still commuting, you know, overall. So, you know, you can’t beat it.

Jamali: So, if these billboards tell the story of the state of the industry, what is it saying right now?

Daver: So, if you look at it right now, we’re in AI bubble over here. It’s really simple. But it would be fun for you to come back in October, and we see what happens. Do the AI’s get dropped from the billboards? Do we see a whole host of other billboards? It would be interesting.

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