POV: Interview with Ken Segall
I actually graduated college determined to make it as a rock drummer. Seven years later, I discovered this thing called advertising. I became a copywriter, and early in my career I realized that I was most happy when I could write about the thing I loved most — technology. My first bit of excitement was getting to work on the IBM personal computer business. But the real break came when Steve Hayden, the creative director responsible for the launch of Macintosh, invited me to move to L.A. to work on Apple. That was during John Sculley’s time as Apple’s CEO, but still — it was Apple, and for me and many others, Apple was still the ultimate computer account. Several years later, I was tempted back to New York for the opportunity to work on the advertising for Steve Jobs’ new company, NeXT. And of course that turned out to be the start of a true advertising adventure. I ended up working with Steve as his ad agency creative director for eight years on NeXT and then performed the same role at TBWA\Chiat\Day when he returned to Apple in 1997. I currently live in New York, but due to all of the above (and more), I spent most of my professional life ping-ponging between New York and L.A.
“Insanely Simple” uses your professional experiences, primarily as the agency creative director on Apple and rival tech brands, to articulate the recipe for combatting complexity in company organization, product development, marketing and more. What built your belief in the power of Simplicity? What are the most common conditions that cause complications?
To be honest, I didn’t fully appreciate Apple’s ways until I found myself working with other major brands like Intel and Dell. It was supremely frustrating to see great ideas pecked to death through complicated processes and an overreliance on focus groups. I did think Apple was special before, but it was the negative experience I had in other places that made me realize just how special it was. Steve Jobs had an aversion to big-company behavior, so he made sure — especially when it came to creative thinking — that Apple would never act like a big company. He relied on small groups of smart people and wouldn’t allow complicated processes to take over. I believe that every company starts this way, but processes become institutionalized as a means of replicating success. Complexity takes over when people start to lose sight of why those processes exist, and processes become more important than the ideas flowing through them. People are rewarded for “keeping things on track” instead of thinking creatively.
Many marketers seek ways to be original. This need for originality can very easily complicate the message. As an experienced copywriter, what’s your advice?
The need to be original doesn’t necessarily lead to more complicated messages. But I won’t deny that there are plenty of people who believe that being original requires ads that are “loaded with creativity.” The wonderful thing about Apple’s success is that it demonstrates the value of a simple and clear message. Apple’s messages are uncomplicated, yet they are normally fresh and original. Keeping ideas and execution simple is often the most creative way to go.
One of the pillars in “Insanely Simple” is “Think Brutal.” As a marketer, it can sometimes be hard to hear the brutal truth. While it wastes less time, how did you personally stay motivated after hearing, “I don’t like it,” on something like “iMac”?
It’s really just a state of mind. If you work in a place where people understand the need to be honest, then honesty isn’t a thing to fear. Working with Steve Jobs, we all knew that we’d hear an honest opinion (sometimes a loud, honest opinion). But he was the guy we had to make happy, so it was helpful to know exactly where we stood. When Steve said “I don’t like it” to the name “iMac,” that didn’t mean we had to stop liking it. It meant that we had to show him some alternatives, then argue passionately for what we believed in. Steve appreciated people who stand up for their point of view.
Many of your stories credit Steve Jobs’ extraordinary CEO-level involvement in creative decisions. How critical are small teams and involved decision makers to Simplicity and how can “Motion” be achieved in organizations that don’t have someone as marketing savvy as Jobs at the helm?
Small teams are critical, because things are inherently more complicated when too many people are involved. But quality is all-important, so small teams alone don’t do much good — they have to be small teams of smart people. Hiring brilliant people was Steve’s first priority. It’s also critical that the final decision maker be involved in projects from the start, not just invited in at the end. Steve was involved because he truly loved marketing (and he was darn good at it). Obviously not all CEOs have that kind of passion or skill, nor do they have the time to invest. What’s important is for the final decision maker — the person with power of approval — to be deeply involved in the work. It’s counter-productive to shield the decision maker until the final stages of the project.
In your telling of the “Think Different” campaign, you emphasize consistency in branding over time. Marketing professionals often question whether their brand has gotten “stale” or “exhausted.” In your career, how did you recognize when re-branding was needed? Given the longevity of the “Think Different” campaign, do you think most brands give up too quickly?
I don’t think there’s any pat answer to this question. As a creative person, I might worry that the end is near when the great ideas start becoming harder to find. But on a higher level, I think smart marketers have a sense of when a brand is in danger of going stale (or if its better brand days are in the past). If customers — or employees of the company themselves — can’t describe what the brand stands for, major work is obviously needed. That might mean rethinking the brand or simply revitalizing it with fresh creative. As for brands giving up too quickly, I think it’s more a case of companies not seeing immediate profit in brand advertising. They get nervous when spending in hopes of some ambiguous future gain. Again, this is an area where Steve Jobs excelled. He was confident that marketing really did work, even when he couldn’t prove it. He was eager to invest in campaigns, products and ecosystems that would yield higher profits months or years ahead. Too few companies are willing to invest as Steve did.
You describe the agencies for which you have worked as having “high standards,” and Steve Jobs as a client with “absurdly high standards.” In this fast-paced world, how do you think marketers can maintain high standards? Any opinions on what those should be?
I made that distinction because I never met another client, before or after working with Steve, who was as relentless about quality. Steve would just never compromise on the customer experience. He was willing to invest as much time and money as it took to get something right. In virtually every other client relationship I’ve experienced, there is always talk about high standards — in products, communications or service — yet ideas always seem to get watered down along the way as certain “realities” come into play. Maybe Steve was just a very unrealistic guy. He was able to get things done his way — to the highest standard — year after year, product after product. His record is simply remarkable.
Based on your stories, it seems as though Apple rejected a lot of normal agency practices, such as brand auditing. What elements do you think make up the best agency-brand relationships?
Steve had an allergic reaction to any behavior that felt typical of a monolith. Maybe it’s because his company started in a garage, and he held onto those small-company values even as Apple grew larger. Steve applied these same values to his agency relationship. I think he was looking for honesty, passion and trust, as opposed to choreographed meetings designed to “sell” him something. I think that’s a formula for any successful agency-brand relationship. Your passion is what helps your ideas survive in debate. Trust means that your motives are above suspicion. And honesty is just a foundational element for every human relationship.
As stated in the book, you did four “tours of duty” at TBWA\Chiat\Day. What experiences did you gain by leaving, and what made you come back three times? What elements do you believe create the best agency environment?
I “grew up” at Chiat, so I always had a place in my heart for it. When I was a junior writer in the New York office, there wasn’t enough room for me in the overpopulated cubicles. So I was literally given a desk in the hallway — people would pass by every few minutes — often talking, laughing or arguing. So I learned to write in the most distracting possible environment. Looking back, there was always something challenging about working at Chiat, and that’s what made me want to succeed there. At one point I resigned because I had the opportunity to be a real writer (not a junior) on the IBM business. Jay Chiat took me in a conference room and yelled at me for quitting. He warned me that it would be “too easy” for me at the other place, and that nobody would push me like they did at Chiat. He was right. At my new job, the managers seemed to like everything I did — even the headlines I knew needed more work. I could hear Jay’s warning echoing in my head. So I came back another time to help the agency pitch a big technology account. Then I came back again to work on Apple. That last time, it was my own personal “perfect storm.” Up until then, my three “career moments” had been working on Apple when Steve was in exile, working at Chiat under the great Lee Clow and working with Steve Jobs when he was at NeXT. This was my opportunity to have my three favorite things all at the same time: Apple, Steve Jobs and Lee Clow. No way I could ever turn down an opportunity like that.
You’re credited as the man behind the “i.” Tell us the story. How did you know it was the right way to go? After it’s been applied to multiple products, what are your thoughts on it now and into the future?
Steve was betting Apple’s future on this new computer. He had a name in mind, but challenged us to do better. He liked the name “MacMan.” Horrifying as that name was, Steve saw something cool in it. We realized we couldn’t just argue him out of it; it was our job to show him something better. Apple created this computer to get people onto the Internet more easily, and unlike other computers, it had a personality. The name needed to reflect both of those things. I thought of “iMac” fairly early in the process because I thought of it as a “Macintosh for the Internet age.” It was as simple as it gets. A single character described its purpose, and the three letters “Mac” described its heritage. Through two presentations, Steve wasn’t impressed with iMac. He still preferred MacMan. Thankfully, he finally changed his mind. One of our selling points was that the “i” could be a foundational element for future names, and indeed we soon had iBook, iPhoto, iMovie, iLife and so on. But none of us — Steve included — imagined just how important it would become to future Apple product names. The “i” has now come to symbolize much more than the Internet. It identifies Apple’s entire line of consumer products. It’s as recognizable as Apple itself. It’s safe to say that it will be with us for quite some time.
Favorite ad of all time: Apple’s “1984,” of course!
Mentor: Steve Hayden. My goal was to write half as well as Hayden. He’s my god of copywriting, the author of “1984” and the man who gave me the opportunity to write for Apple.
Must read book (other than your own): “Life,” by Keith Richards. Holy cow, it’s rich. (Or maybe it’s just the failed drummer in me.)
Music that gets you in your zone: At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur — give me Pink Floyd.
Anything else you’d like to add? I’m tired now, thanks.
Find out more about Ken at kensegall.com.