As you might expect of a self-made billionaire, Tom Siebel exudes inexhaustibility. It’s tiring just being around him. One afternoon last fall, Siebel bounds into the kitchen of his sprawling ranch house in central Montana, and after he takes very firm hold of my hand — “Tom! Good to see you,” he announces, shaking away, as if I might not have learned the name of the man whose 72,000-acre property I am visiting — he asks, “Want to see some elk?” Siebel is wearing jeans, a plaid work shirt, and nerdy wire-rim glasses. He is out of breath because, in the hour since he stepped off a private jet from California, he has destroyed a round of clay pigeons on his shooting range.
Without waiting for an answer, Siebel goes outside and climbs into the driver’s seat of a spotless white Chevy SUV. As he pulls out from the driveway, the golden hills of Dearborn Ranch — the absurdly calm Dearborn River runs through it — open up before us. “Isn’t this something?” he says, looking out. “Just really something.”
Siebel, 56, assembled one of the archetypal fortunes of the software boom. An early hireling at Oracle in the 1980s, he founded Siebel Systems, a maker of customer-relations-management software, building it into an 8,000-person firm with annual revenue of $2 billion before selling it in 2006 for $5.9 billion (to Oracle, tidily enough). He now spends his time plying what he calls “strategic philanthropy,” by which he means being kept up by issues at night and, when he can’t stand it anymore, attacking them with the same obsessive focus he did business.
His latest obsession is America’s crystal-methamphetamine problem. Siebel is the creator, designer, and original financial backer of the Meth Project, a controversial antimeth experiment whose centerpiece is an ad campaign that has, since 2005, inundated Montana’s airwaves, newspapers, and billboards with harrowing depictions of the woes wrought by meth addiction.
The project is now the state’s largest advertiser, and it is inescapable. Minutes after I left the airport when I got to Montana, I passed a billboard that showed a close-up of a young woman with “meth mouth,” her teeth rotted and her lips lacerated. YOU’LL NEVER WORRY ABOUT LIPSTICK ON YOUR TEETH AGAIN, it read. When I logged onto the wireless network at my hotel in Helena, a Meth Project banner ad popped up on my screen. It showed a gorgeous photograph, as immaculately posed and eerie as a Gregory Crewdson tableau, of an older man lying bloodied and unconscious on a floor while a younger man takes his wallet. The copy read: METH HAS A WAY OF MAKING DECISIONS FOR YOU.
Since the Meth Project began, Montana has gone from having America’s fifth-worst per-capita meth-abuse rate to the 39th. Meth use among teens has nearly halved. “Tom Siebel,” says former Montana attorney general Mike McGrath, “has single-handedly changed national drug-control policy.” This is true: Montana, several other states, and the federal government now pour millions in taxpayer dollars into the Meth Project. Siebel is proud of his expanding initiative. Yet it’s unclear how effective he and his ads actually are.
“If you look at the great philanthropic institutions in the nation, it’s just baffling to me how they mismanage their resources,” says Siebel, as we drive along a dirt road, toward an alfalfa field where elk sometimes graze in the evenings. “You look at their annual reports, and they give hundreds and hundreds of contributions over the course of the year: $4,000 to the Women’s Quilting Society of Armonk, New York. Okay? I mean, this is insane. They could be changing the world.”
Siebel believes, without a hint of embarrassment, that he can change the world. To him, it’s a question of proper resource allocation. There is the Thomas M. Siebel Center for Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the Thomas M. Siebel Professorship in Business Leadership at Stanford; a Siebel-funded stem-cell research lab shared by Stanford and UC Berkeley; and the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation, which has endowed 10 universities with $2.6 million and puts on conferences. The last one, in 2008, devoted to the impending world water crisis, included a moderating appearance by former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham and entertainment by Bonnie Raitt. During one panel, Siebel, visibly annoyed, stood and announced that the discussion was getting boring. “Come on, guys, get in on this!” he bellowed at the audience. “Get out of your chairs and speak. Don’t wait for the stupid microphones!”
The 2004 Siebel Scholars Conference was about something else that had been bothering him: the criminal-justice system. “The entire event rapidly degenerated into a discussion of the drug problem,” Siebel recalls over dinner, after we’d returned from our failed attempt to spy on elk. (Only a few antelope showed up.) “Here we consider ourselves the land of the brave and home of the free, or whatever it is, and we have this great independent, free society, and yet we have the largest rate of incarceration of any society on earth. Most of this is about the War on Drugs. I mean, this is just crazy. You can’t put everybody in jail.”
Around the time of the criminal-justice conference, Siebel was hunting a lot with John Stevens, a Cascade County lieutenant sheriff. Whenever they got together, Stevens would describe the worsening meth problem. By 2005, meth accounted for half of all incarcerations in Montana. “I was getting called out every night to go to labs. In Cascade County, 95% of the crime you could link back to meth,” Stevens says. Former attorney general McGrath adds: “Those of us in law enforcement had never seen anything like it. The kinds of crimes we saw were much more violent. We had domestic crimes and homicides before, but not with these incredibly violent aspects.” As Siebel heard the tales of Montana’s meth-induced spiral, “you could see the wheels spinning,” Stevens says.
What resulted was a salesman’s epiphany: Meth was an inferior product. “There’s no glamorous side to it,” Siebel says, as his chef takes our soup bowls and sets down slabs of prime rib. “I am not on a big antidrug mission, and I’m not on the religious right. With all of these other things — cocaine, alcohol, marijuana — there are some positive effects. You can relax. You can concentrate. I’d even argue there are some positive effects to cigarettes.” An ex-smoker, Siebel quit just before he and his wife, Stacey, had the first of their four children. “Meth has no positive effects. It’s such an easy product to work with.
“Let’s say this is meth,” he goes on, picking up a bowl of horseradish. “Now, you can have any of these other things, and they might be bad” — he points his fork at a mound of butter and then at his half-empty bottle of wine. “But know that if you eat this horseradish once, it causes brain damage, it’s the most addictive substance known to man, and you’re going to feel paranoid. Your teeth are going to rot and fall out, and you’re going to get screwed by about eight different people!”
The next day, Siebel takes me on a tour of the ranch and launches into a taxonomy of its other residents, which usually do not include his wife and kids, who live mostly at their home in Silicon Valley. There are 4,000 head of cattle, deer, moose, coyotes, wolves, bears, and thousands of birds, including a covey of Hungarian partridges that he introduced.
The walls of the house are mounted with portraits of Blackfeet Indian chiefs and the side tables stacked with books on Native American art. Upstairs, there’s a mini replica of a 19th-century frontier saloon, its bar embedded with commemorative “peace” medals given by white settlers to Indians (before they were killed or moved onto reservations). Siebel repeatedly mentions the plight of Native Americans. I ask whether he contributes to Native American charities. “No,” he says. “I think about it a lot.” (He did establish a scholarship program for local students from the Crow tribe.)
In the library is a full-size bronze cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull. Siebel also thinks a great deal about extinction, he says. Perhaps not unrelated, he keeps, in meticulous glass cases in his office and a mudroom, a collection of handcrafted shotguns and hunting rifles. (“Ugo Beretta’s a friend of mine,” he explains.) Most have never been discharged.
Siebel undertook the Meth Project in 2005 — nine years after buying Dearborn Ranch — with the same punctilious instincts. He hired the research firm GfK Roper and the ad agency Venables, Bell & Partners to generate ideas. He met with Governor Brian Schweitzer, state legislators, and every other influential Montanan who would give him an ear. “At first I thought, Another rich guy moving into the state — big deal,” says the state’s lone congressman, Denny Rehberg. “[But] he clearly had a conscience, where he’s made a lot of money and wants to do something with it.”
Siebel, who is notoriously controlling — at Siebel Systems, he banned employees from eating at their desks and fired the worst-performing 5% of his workforce every six months — handpicked the staff. He immersed himself in every step of the process, from designing the outreach programs for schools to choosing the campaign’s tagline, “Meth: Not Even Once,” which is printed on everything from stickers to black Livestrong-esque bracelets to Meth Project day planners.
Siebel made public appearances across the state. “I started spending time at Montana community events, and I’d be seated at the table next to some young girl who might be 15, 16 years old and was in recovery and, you know, she and her father would tell a story about how she spent a year on the streets basically doing anything and everything to get meth,” he says, and then pauses. For a moment, he appears to choke up. “It just rips your heart out. I have to say it’s more than I bargained for.” When I ask whether anyone close to him had ever had a substance-abuse problem, he replies, “Oh, sure. Not that I’d want to go into detail. It would be hard.” He refuses to say another word about it.
Siebel also hired the directors who made the project’s TV spots. So far they’ve included Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), notoriously controlling English auteur Tony Kaye (American History X), and notoriously controlling American auteur Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). Siebel hasn’t yet persuaded Quentin Tarantino to get involved. “This was, like, made for him,” he says of the notoriously controlling Pulp Fiction auteur.
The first Meth Project ads launched in late 2005. Part cinema verité, part Calvin Klein pederast-chic, they show addicted teens robbing homes, selling their bodies, beating up their parents, and getting into car crashes. The ads are impeccably produced, with restive handheld-camera work and grainy, washed-out palettes.
Kaye directed the original spots. The one that got the most attention, a Psycho homage entitled “Bathtub,” shows a teenage girl getting ready to go over to a friend’s house, where she intends to try meth for the first time. She steps into the shower, and then, looking down, sees that the water is stained red. She begins screaming. She turns and sees, cowering in the corner, an emaciated, shaking future version of herself, covered in cuts and sores. “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” her meth doppelgänger pleads.
Another example, entitled “Sisters” and directed by Iñárritu, shows two wan, unkempt, barely teenage girls, covered in sores, their eyes vacant — graphic shorthand for tweakers — approaching some sinister-looking men at a gas station at night. “You guys can do anything you want to me for 50 bucks,” one of the girls says. They go into the station bathroom with the men, and, as the door closes, the narrator intones: “This isn’t normal. But on meth, it is.” This is one of the more subtle spots.
“If you think this is over the top, if you think this is too graphic, if you think it’s over the edge,” Siebel tells me, “that’s because you’re not 16.”
Siebel estimates that he has spent $26 million on the Meth Project. In the Montana Meth Project’s first two years, 45,000 television and 35,000 radio spots aired, 10,000 print ads ran, and 1,000 billboards went up. The point was total saturation, and, according to Siebel, it worked. Meth use among teens was already steadily falling in the state: According to the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the percentage of high-school students who said they had ever used meth fell from 13.5% in 1999 to 8.3% in 2005, dropping an average of 7.8% each year. After the Meth Project began, the decline accelerated; by 2007, 4.6% of high schoolers said they had used the drug, down 45% from 2005. Testifying before Congress in 2007, Siebel claimed, “Meth Project results in Montana have been more effective than any drug-prevention program in history.”
Richard Rawson, a professor in addiction studies at the UCLA School of Medicine, is less skeptical than he once was. “The research literature says doing exaggerated claims and scare tactics don’t work very well for prevention,” he says. “However, the program in Montana is far more than that.” In addition to the ads, there have been school outreach programs and public art projects. The state has also created experimental rehab facilities for meth-addicted criminals and specialized drug courts.
Siebel contrasts the Meth Project’s apparent success with what he sees as the total failure of the Bush administration’s War on Drugs. “I believe that the statements they made about what they achieved are outright fabrications. They are just bankrupt, they are fiction,” Siebel says, landing his hand on the table with each point.
But skeptics say the Meth Project can’t prove that it has been much more effective. While meth use has fallen in Montana, they say it’s hard to credit the project. The state and federal governments have cracked down on meth labs and passed so-called precursor laws requiring retailers to put medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which is turned into meth, behind counters. “I haven’t seen any evidence they’ve provided that convinces me that their program led to the specific decline,” says Elizabeth Ginexi of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
More troubling, a 2008 paper by University of Western Australia graduate student David Erceg-Hurn in the journal Prevention Science reported that the Meth Project ignored negative data from its own studies. It criticized the project’s research methods and failure to report data in categories that had produced what Erceg-Hurn calls “unflattering findings.” Analyzing the Meth Project’s own data, he found that teen views toward meth had barely changed. Before the ads, 84% of teens saw a “great” or “moderate” risk of dying from meth use; after, 84% of teens saw a “great” or “moderate” risk of dying from meth use. The percentage strongly disapproving of regular meth use actually declined from 98% before the ads to 91% in 2008. (The ads’ meth-mouth focus was perhaps more effective: The percentage perceiving risk of tooth decay rocketed from 69% to 82%.) Erceg-Hurn recommended that Montana — which now pays for the project, using a mix of state and federal funds — halt public funding pending better data. (It has not.)
The fact is that it’s nearly impossible to prove causality: Was the drop in meth use entirely or partly or not at all because of the ads? The Meth Project — which Erceg-Hurn never contacted during his research — says it had already asked Roper, its research firm, to strengthen its methodology. But Erceg-Hurn, who acknowledges that the Meth Project “has been associated with some positive outcomes,” says that to prove the ads’ efficacy, the Meth Project would need to use an “experimental research methodology.” It’s hard to imagine an experiment, though, that could control for all the other real-world elements that affect drug use. And Rawson says that before the Meth Project, “there was almost no public education program to inform and warn people about the dangers of meth.” In other words, it is better than nothing.
Siebel is dismissive of criticism. He has seen Erceg-Hurn’s report but offers no more specific a rebuttal than this: “The Meth Project is saving lives, pure and simple. It was an outrageous exercise in prevention. It has proven to date incredibly successful. More importantly, we’ve changed national policy.”
Meth still vexes many states. Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, and Wyoming have already started Meth Projects. Colorado and Georgia plan to do so this year. Each state signs a contract with the national Meth Project, ceding creative control to Siebel’s group, which provides new radio ads at cost and rebrands the TV ads. “We’re in the franchising and licensing business — think of McDonald’s,” Siebel says. “You can do with this anything you want, as long as you do it exactly as we did it in the state of Montana. We don’t want to be associated with efforts that are not going to succeed.”
Such is Siebel’s system. He is not interested in half-measures. If the world is going to be changed, it’s going to happen his way. “I don’t do philanthropy because I’m a good guy,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and I look at things, and either you’re going to give all your money to the government when you die, or you can give it away before you die, okay?” Siebel plans to leave no money to his children. “That’s the bottom line. So as long as I’m going to give it away, maybe there’s an opportunity to do something good.”