An Interview with Ken Segall

Ken Segall - Former Worldwide Creative Director & author of "Insanely Simple"
Ken Segall – Former Worldwide Creative Director & author of “Insanely Simple”

Ken Segall’s connection with Apple began in 1986 when he worked on it at BBDO, and was renewed in 1997 at Chiat/Day, and then renewed again in 2005 at, well, Apple. Along the way, as he explains in Insanely Simple, he learned a lot about what made that company – and potentially any company – successful. But his career also took him to IBM and Intel and other big, important, companies, and they too appear in his book, providing, if nothing else, perspective and context. Nowadays, Ken travels the world explaining what he’s learned and helping others learn it too. We asked him about these things and many others when we caught him between flights.

you

Agency Review:
Your career really connects two eras – the TV/Print heavy era and the current digital-centric era. As such, you’ve been in advertising through some of the biggest changes its ever faced – the rise of computers, the internet, social media, and so on. And, as we both know, the halls of advertising agencies are littered with people who couldn’t adapt to these radically changing times. How were you able to and why do you think others didn’t? What qualities do you think you had – and continue to have – that allow you to keep going in this radically different advertising world?

Segall:
Yes, it was a big change indeed, and I well remember the pain that came with it — not just adjusting to it myself, but witnessing the conflicts that were part of the transition. When the web started to rise, some creatives who grew up with traditional media felt that being creative in the digital format was somewhat beneath them. Some with digital skills felt that they were treated more as technicians than people capable of being conceptual. As a creative director, I often had to step in to smooth things over. I have to say — I think a good number of people on both sides were seeing what they wanted to see, and not necessarily the reality. Those who had honed their traditional TV and print skills didn’t want to believe they needed to learn new skills, and those who grew up digitally weren’t always equipped to think as conceptually as the traditional guys.

Agency Review:
That’s interesting because the same thing was happening back in the early sixties – the old guard loved print and felt TV was crass & beneath them and the younger creatives felt disrespected by them because they “got” TV. The more things change…

Segall:
Confession: I wasn’t the first guy in the room to embrace digital. But I like to believe I wasn’t too far behind the curve. What helped me was my inner nerd. The reason I ended up advertising techy things is that I was always interested in techy things.

Agency Review:
Like what?

Segall:
I could go all the way back to high school. I always had to have the neatest new stereo, and I think I was the only kid in town who had a reel-to-reel tape deck. I got into creating radio shows and comedy skits with my friends, and became pretty darn good at splicing tape together to do the edits. The tools we have today are only a few light years ahead.

Agency Review:
Wow. “stereo”; “reel-to-reel”; “splicing tape”. This interview may need it’s own glossary for readers under 40…

Segall:
So the creative work that blossomed in the digital world pulled me in pretty quickly. The idea that a campaign could now include a digital component didn’t negate the skills I had learned before — it opened up new doors. We could still create great commercials, but now we had an even, more accessible and more affordable media in which to place them.

Along with the Internet came another thing that appealed to me from the start. That is: the need to construct a coherent and compelling narrative with minimal copy. In the print world, I had become pretty good at writing very long pieces, like 16-page inserts in magazines for new products. The internet wiped out the demand for such things. Now we were challenged to create ads for TV, print and web that would interest people enough to get them to visit a website to get involved or, better yet, click a Buy button.

I found that writing ads like these, and writing the web pages themselves, forced me to be far more concise than I had been before. Not that I was ever much of a rambler, but the internet seemed to demand that we be as brief as possible while still making the important points. This puts a great burden on us writers, but it also results in a far simpler, and potentially more interesting story.

Agency Review:
But in addition to concision, there’s a fundamental difference of that “click a buy button” or even “visit the website.” Watching TV doesn’t require – or isn’t measured by – an action. The web is. And that engagement, that interaction is central. Was that difficult to adjust to  – for you, your teams, and even your clients?

Segall:
I think that was just one more element of change we had to come to grips with, on top of the creative considerations. It was all part of one massive mountain of change. Looking back, it’s not hard to understand why some people weren’t able to acclimate.

pov

Agency Review:
One of the things we took away from the book – in addition, of course, to the importance of simplicity – is the importance of truly thinking like a consumer. That the real genius of Jobs and Apple lay in the ability to look at technology from, as we say in the review “the point of view of consumers who were nowhere near as interested in technology as they were.” First, do you think this is a legitimate lesson from the book and from Apple, and second, why do you think they were able to do it while so many other companies – in all kinds of categories – can’t?

Segall:
I would modify what you say to some degree. Apple’s genius is its ability to create technology that people will love to use, period — regardless of their level of tech knowledge. Apple wants a techy person to love the iPad every bit as much as a pre-schooler or a retired person.

Agency Review:
Good point.

Segall:
I’m not sure if it’s that other companies (in technology and other categories) can’t do this, or more that they just don’t. It takes hard work and unbending determination to get there. There will always be customers who want to buy a product that’s “good enough” at a lower price, and there will always be companies more than happy to oblige. This is the high-volume, low-profit portion of the market that is NOT the Apple customer.

But you are absolutely right that what has set Apple apart is its ability to see things from the consumer’s point of view. Steve Jobs was admired for his vision and ability to guide so many different teams in the creation of such beautifully simple products. I’m not sure how many people get that so much of this was driven by Steve’s innate understanding of what people want now, and will want in the future. Though he was often criticized for certain unpleasant behaviors (I’m being kind!), he was hugely gifted in his understanding of human behavior.

Agency Review:
I find that dichotomy fascinating, that someone so smart about human behaviour writ large, could be so tone deaf about it in the face-to-face. And yet, we see that again and again in our industry, don’t we?

Segall:
Once you got to understand the way Steve worked, that dichotomy pretty much faded away. It’s not like the face-to-face meetings were cold and scary. The guy had a great sense of humor, a love of family, and a feeling of responsibility for Apple employees. But he wasn’t about to let any of that get in the way of moving the business forward every single day. As for other business leaders — maybe I’m just lucky, but the CEOs I’ve worked with have largely been decent people.

Steve was also very successful in teaching his team to think similarly. Both Steve Jobs and Jony Ive have made comments about Apple people making products for themselves — because at the end of the day, they’re consumers like anyone else. If they love their products, the customers will too.

Agency Review:
This feels like dangerous territory, because so many clients believe they are the customer, a positions born out of hubris and not fact. What’s the difference?

Segall:
My experience has been that not enough clients think this way. More often than not, they seem to put less faith in their own instincts or expertise, and more trust in focus group testing and other types of research. They feel compelled to provide concrete proof that every move is a wise one before they move forward. I wish more companies did behave as if they were the customer. It would save an enormous amount of time and money.

And as you know, this is one of the main points of my book. I think too many agencies and clients view audiences as things to be studied and analyzed, while Apple simply thinks of them as part of the family. So many companies build big marketing machines, and are so guided by research, that they settle into a “system” for marketing. They get into the zone of analyzing things to death, and people start enforcing processes partly for the sake of making their jobs more secure or more important. Steve Jobs made it clear that he didn’t want to develop products or ads with such complicated systems at work.

icons

Agency Review:
You had – some would call it a privilege, others perhaps something else – of working with one of the most iconic and important brands of our generation in Apple, and in creating some of the most memorable advertising of our time as well. Perhaps on a par with the Nike advertising in the 90s or the VW advertising in the 60s. Now it’s the 2010s – surprise us with a couple of brands and agencies you think are doing that level of work today.

Segall:
First, let me say it really was a privilege to work on Apple. I feel extremely lucky that things worked out as they did. When Steve Jobs gave his now-famous Stanford commencement address, he noted that you can only connect the dots looking backward — and that’s certainly the case for me. I didn’t see my career path unfolding as it did. Hell, I started out spending ten years as a drummer.

Agency Review:
Whoa. Wait. A drummer? How do you get from percussion to advertising?

Segall:
I gave myself until I was 30 to become rich and famous, and that didn’t quite happen. As I neared that ripe old age, I looked around for a day job. I was in LA, and a friend of mine in the NY ad industry recommended that I think about advertising. So I got a job in the production department of what was then Chiat/Day LA. I had no idea there was even such a thing as a creative department at the time, and was clueless about what a copywriter was. I thought it had something to do with the “little c-in-a-circle” you’d see in the legal type.

Agency Review:
So a drummer who loved technology…

Seagall:
I did have this love of technology, and I liked to write, and that helped open various doors for me in advertising until I ultimately got to work on NeXT, where Steve Jobs became my client. If only I was smart enough to have actually planned that.

Agency Review:
It seems to have worked out okay; you’ve had a fairly marvelous career it would seem…

Segall:
Apple is one of the rare companies that have a long history of great products and ad campaigns to go along with them. To me, that’s the marvel of it. I see great ads from time to time, but is there a company that makes me think “Those guys are really smart and really creative, and I love just about everything they do”? Not really.

I am impressed with Google, but in a very different way than I am with Apple. Certainly a sense of simplicity propelled those guys from the start, presenting the world with a search screen that was so very stark and uncluttered. They’ve also done some really good advertising for search in particular, weaving beautifully human stories out of people’s normal search activities. Those commercials prove my point that you don’t need to show a single human being to create a human ad. But then Google has its fingers in so many different things, they are a complicated company too. In fact, they’re extremely hard to describe, which is normally a trait of a confused company — but I don’t think they’re confused at all. They just have their fingers in a lot of different things. We may not be able to describe all the things they do, but we all know they’re smart. Not a bad brand image.

I hate to sound jaded, but I can’t think of any company that stands out in a way that makes me think they’re masterful on the level of an Apple. I see one-off products, and one-off commercials, but no one who shines as a shining example of excellence in both products and marketing.

Agency Review:
Okay, fair enough that there’s nobody reaching the Apple heights, but why is that? Is it a corporate culture thing – that companies today aren’t capable of long term, great campaigns? Or is it that consumers don’t work that way? Or finally that as an industry, agencies just aren’t configured to make work like that?

Segall:
At the risk of indulging in Steve-worship, I think the biggest reason is that Steve had some amazing standards — and he refused to compromise. Honestly, I don’t think it’s all that hard to maintain a high level of quality, but it has to be baked into the culture. And it certainly helps when the CEO is passionate about great marketing and actively involved in the process. That’s just not the case in most companies. Many agencies fight the good fight, but it’s not always a fight that ends well. It certainly wasn’t easy with Apple, but we did have an unfair advantage — we had Steve’s attention.

managing

Agency Review:
As a Creative Director working on a difficult – that is “challenging” – client, albeit one as famous and high-profile as Apple, it can be a struggle to manage your team through round after round of changes, especially when they can appear capricious and arbitrary. How did you do it? How did you keep your team – and yourself – from burning out? How did you keep them engaged, and more importantly, capable of going to the well again and again for great work?

Segall:
First, I’d say that if you can’t live with the idea of revising your work, starting over again, debating, defending, and then revising again — you’re probably not in the right line of work. Though we often wish it otherwise, the clients are the ones paying the bills, and therefore they’re the ones who make the ultimate decisions.

Agency Review:
To be clear, I’m not talking about revisions, which I would agree with you are part and parcel of the business. But there are rounds and then there are ROUNDS of revisions. Plus, while you and I may be lifers, the people you’re managing aren’t – and you have to keep them engaged.

Segall:
I felt like everyone one on our team (and it wasn’t a very large team at all) understood the nature of the Apple account, and appreciated the opportunity to do great work — even if certain projects became way more work than expected. Some Apple people look back and talk about how Steve promised them they’d do the best work of their lives. That’s pretty much how we felt on the agency Apple team. The amount of work never really got us down, because we believed we’d get there in the end. I don’t think I had to use any special tricks to keep people motivated and engaged.

And in reality, the agency had to work just as hard on Intel and Dell as we did on Apple. The difference was that on the Apple side, we were working at the direction of one person – Steve Jobs – so we were much more focused. When we were forced to deal with changes, I would not classify them as capricious and arbitrary. Yes, there were times when it seemed that Steve’s point of view was “Sorry, I just don’t like it.” But far more often, he made constructive criticism. And the more you worked with him, the easier it was to put more meaning in his words, even when they weren’t so specific. A comment like “It’s not Apple” wasn’t as vague as it might sound. It meant that what he saw was an ad that strayed from Apple values — and those values were not at all vague.

Agency Review:
That’s interesting because we talk in the review about vocabulary – about learning, over time, what a client means compared to what they say – and that that becomes necessarily simpler when its one person making the decisions.

Segall:
Agreed! In bigger, more complicated companies, we had to navigate through multiple levels of approvals, with people of varying degrees of marketing talent and taste. In this situation, it wasn’t uncommon to run up against the capricious and arbitrary. But more often we’d just run up against people who didn’t share our creative values. That’s a more difficult thing to deal with. No matter how often we disagreed with Steve about marketing strategy or creative, we never felt as if we were on different planets creatively.

One of the talents required of the agency was an ability to go to the well again and again if necessary, until we arrived at a place where we could all agree. Then all the hard work was worth it.

In the old days, at Ammirati & Puris, the two founders told us about the early days of BMW advertising. Creative people aspired to work at the agency because BMW ads had been consistently great for over a decade. The truth was, those ads only came after that all-too-familiar pattern of work/revise/work/revise/etc. The first ad was often killed, as were the second, third, fourth and more. The campaign consistently won awards for all those years because the agency was consistently good at not getting discouraged. If an ad were killed because it made the client nervous, they’d come back with an ad that made them even more nervous. They kept coming back until the client finally approved something. They were relentless.

That kind of thing has always been a part of our business. Being able to stay excited and never lose one’s passion is what makes the good stuff happen.

Agency Review:
I’m not sure it still is a part of our business. That “restlessness” or “There isn’t time” or “There isn’t money” or “Shut up and do what the client wants” or even, as one MD said to me recently , “We’re not the only game in town for creatives.”

Segall:
Here’s where I sheepishly confess that I haven’t had the pleasure of working inside an agency for a few years now. I do work with a certain team of people on special projects, and when we hear such things, we all breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to put up with that anymore. How’s that for arrogance?

Agency Review:
Is “arrogance” another word for “accuracy”?…

Segall:
As we all know, ours is a relationship business. You do need to have people skills to get where you want to go. You have to be able to win the client’s trust, so that when the time comes, they’re willing to go with your judgment. There’s someone I often refer to as “the greatest account guy I ever worked with.” His talent was that he could make a very passionate, even aggressive argument in favor of our work and still command the client’s respect. In fact, they respected him more each time it happened. He put his heart on the line and never gave up — but he did so in such a way that the clients respected him even more. Anyone who thinks being creative is only about doing great work is being a bit naïve.

One of my first bosses, Arthur Einstein (Lord, Geller, Federico, Einstein), said something I never forgot: “It ain’t creative unless it runs.” Yes, it’s a sad statement — but his point was that we weren’t just responsible for filling our walls with great creative work. The job wasn’t done unless we could make our clients feel great about running it.

anti-Apple

Agency Review:

You’re pretty clear in “Insanely Simple” that Dell and Intel are sort of the “Anti-Apple” – in terms of the way they work with their agencies, how they expected their agencies to work, how they worked internally with each other, how they engaged with consumers, how they used research and focus groups – pretty much everything. But you also make the point that these ways of working do not exist in a vacuum – they are a part of the corporate cultures of these two companies. So if you’re working with a company that functions this, as it were, dysfunctionally – what do you, as the agency do? Can it be fixed? And if so, how?

Segall:
That’s a hard one to answer, mainly because companies can be so different in the way they develop marketing. Really, it’s almost impossible to change a company that sees you as a vendor, and is more interested in molding you to its needs than engaging you as a partner.

To me, what’s important is earning a client’s trust. Only when you are viewed as a partner, fully vested in the success of the client, can you suggest that the process evolve into something better. And the person with whom you are dealing needs to have enough influence within the client company to be able to effect change.

So while I like to radiate optimism, this is one area in which I too often see darkness. The good news is, there are plenty of great clients in this world. Just as agencies hire employees who reflect your values, agencies need to engage with clients who share their values as well.

As individuals, the same principle applies. You can’t be really happy at an agency unless it shares your values. That way, even when you’re working with difficult, complicated clients, you’re not alone. You’re part of a talented team that wants to make positive change.

Even in companies that are complicated, awash in processes and seemingly unwilling to change, there is sometimes hope. It might be finding one client — the marketing chief or whoever — who loves what you do, and is eager to help spark a change in advertising. You need that one partner (or more) willing to stand with you, challenging “the way we do things here,” and putting his or her own job on the line for it.

If success came only from making great ads, there would be a lot more successful advertising people. You’ve got to be part artist, part business person and part psychiatrist. A great client relationship is the best catalyst for change.

Agency Review:
Completely agree on all points – about the trust, about employees, about hope. But what do you do when you suddenly realize you’ve got a “vendor” client instead of a “partner” client? On the one hand, you know a “vendor” client is going to burn out your agency and produce sub-par work. On the other hand, no way the CFO is gonna let you pull a Don Draper and just resign the account. So what do you do?

Segall:
Okay, now you’re backing me into a corner!

Agency Review:
I know. It’s my thing. Ask my account people…

Segall:
I guess what you’re asking is, what do you do when you don’t have the good relationship, you’re being treated like a vendor, and agency morale is headed south. The sad truth is, not every relationship is fixable. I’ve been in agencies where one account is problematic that way, and it will never be more than it is. These are the cases where you do the best work you can do, and concentrate your firepower on other accounts where the agency is treated more like a partner. Maybe it doesn’t happen much anymore, but in the early days of Chiat/Day NY, I actually did see Jay Chiat resign accounts that weren’t going to further the goals and reputation of the agency. Now that was a morale booster. It felt great that our leader realized that money was not the most important factor if the agency was going to grow in the right direction.

future

Agency Review:
Apple has changed a lot since Steve Jobs passed the reins over to Tim Cook – and while some complain that Mr. Cook is no Steve Jobs, there are others who take a view not unlike the one Garry Wills discusses in his book on leadership (“Certain Trumpets”) about the difference between King David and King Solomon – that Apple is entering a different era in its development, one that frankly requires a very different set of skills than Mr. Jobs had. As someone who was there during the turbulent turnaround and through the rise towards success, what’s your perspective on today’s Apple – and perhaps, tomorrow’s?

Segall:
Let’s start with the most important thing: I haven’t sold my stock yet!

I don’t really agree that the “new era” for Apple requires a different skill set than Steve’s. It’s simply the reality that Steve was unique, and it is not possible for Apple to be the same without him. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be good without him.

I like to use the analogy of a parent raising a child. You do all you can do to instill your values into that child. You do that for about as long as Steve was running Apple — and then you send that child out into the world. Hopefully, your values guide the kid through the good and the bad times, and he ends up being happy and successful. Unfortunately, it’s also possible he’ll end up doing 10-to-20 in San Quentin. That’s what happens when he gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and is led astray.

I believe Steve did a fantastic job of instilling his values into the company. The executive team currently in place works just as it did before. But as time passes, Apple will be faced with opportunities, risks and challenges that Steve could never have imagined. How it responds comes down to its values.

If you look at the Disney Company today, it’s almost hard to see the company that existed 30 years ago. I expect that’s the way it will go with Apple. We’ll look at the company 30 years from now and fondly remember the days when it was so much smaller, its product portfolio was smaller, it was the underdog fighting the big guys, the keeper of the sacred creative flame, etc. But it must change to stay ahead of a world that never stops changing, and no doubt there will be people who say “this isn’t Apple anymore.”

To me, the bottom line is: yes, we did witness an extraordinary time in Apple history. We saw the company rise from the ashes and become the world’s most valuable company — in the span of a mere 14 years.

Despite those who see dramatic changes in Apple already, I think the company has been remarkably consistent since Steve’s death. It has never operated on any kind of timetable for innovation, and is continuing to innovate as it always has. It works on products until they rise to the Apple standard — “a device people can love” — and that’s when they are released.

It’s way too early to discern a significantly “different” Apple. That time is bound to come though, as current executives leave and are replaced by new people with new points of view. Personally, I do hope that Steve’s values never fade, because those values are what have propelled Apple to the point where it is today.

When Steve came back to Apple in 1997, he asked us at the agency to think about ways to present Apple’s values to the world. That ultimately led us to the “Think different” campaign. One of the alternate videos we prepared was one that imagined the world without Apple. It was a sad thought, because Apple had always carried the torch of creativity in the world of technology.

I still feel that way today. I don’t know any other company that blends creativity and technology in quite the same way. Hopefully, that part doesn’t change. When Apple does what Apple does best, it makes the world a far more interesting place.

Agency Review:
Okay, but to be clear, I wasn’t saying that Steve Jobs’ principles were outdated and obsolete. Just that, to your point, Apple is the world’s most valuable company today, which is a substantially different position than it was in when he asked you guys to “present Apple’s values to the world”. The world knows Apple’s values now, comes to expect them, vilifies Cupertino when it doesn’t deliver on them. Oh, and it’s got a $160 billion in cash reserves on hand. That’s a stunningly different company, which requires a different kind of leader, no?

Segall:
I do think Tim has a very different style, and some priorities that Steve didn’t have, but most important, he seems to be very capable of guiding Apple in a very different time. It becomes less and less relevant to ask “what Steve would do,” because the challenges and opportunities now — just three years after Steve’s death — are already so different than the ones Steve had to deal with. Would Steve have gone so heavily in the fashion direction with Apple Watch as Tim has done? Maybe yes, maybe no. But learning this very new trick may well be what propels Apple forward for the next few years, with even more wearable technology.

Clearly Apple will continue to evolve, as every company should. Look at all the things that have happened since we started to have this conversation. While Tim Cook’s leadership was being attacked from many sides, and Apple was being accused of having lost its ability to innovate … suddenly all of that is forgotten. We have record-breaking iPhone 6 sales all over the world, huge gains in China, Apple Pay, and Apple Watch on its way, which will likely shock yet another new category to life.

For me, it always comes down to the values. As long as Apple never compromises on its values, I think it will do just fine.

You can read our review of Ken’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Illustration of Ken Segall by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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