Ken Segall

The man who named the iMac speaks about Apple, advertising and Steve jobs

Ken Segall is the man who named the iMac. He's also a creative director with a long history with the advertising firm TBWA\Chiat\Day, and an almost as long history working with Apple and the company that made it what it is today, NeXT – both companies closely connected with their visionary founder Steve Jobs.

Segall has written a book, Insanely Simple, about what he learned working with Jobs. We spoke about the book, his time working on Apple's famous "Think Different" campaign, and Jobs himself.

The simple stick

In the book, Segall sums up Jobs' creative process:

The simple stick symbolizes a core value within Apple. Sometimes it's held up as inspiration; other times it's wielded like a caveman's club. In all cases, it's a reminder of what sets Apple apart from other technology companies and what makes Apple stand out in a complicated world: a deep, almost religious belief in the power of Simplicity.

We spoke about where the phrase came from:

I don't even think it was a thing that was said throughout Apple. It was where I was, in the internal creative group.

I was working on this project, so I had a vested interest in it, but I didn't go to the Steve meeting, because I was really just a consultant at that point. The guys who I was doing the work with came back, and they just looked a little nervous. The impression was that things didn't go particularly well. I bumped into the senior guy, and asked, "how bad it is it?"

He sort of had this... not defeated look, but it was clear we didn't get what we wanted at the meeting, and he just said, "well, Steve hit us with the simple stick".

And I just thought it was funny, because that's what they experienced regularly, they would take something to him and if he didn't think it worked he would either kill it or he would suggest that it be changed in some way. But in effect he was hitting it with the simple stick.

Think Different

"Think Different" was the first campaign Segall worked on for Apple, and it went on to redefine the company from the wreck it was. But it was an act of necessity for a company that didn't actually have anything to sell:

At that point in time, [Steve Jobs] had just come back. Apple was in really bad shape. He would say in later years that it was ninety days from bankruptcy.

As a result, "there wouldn't be any new products for at least six or eight months. He was just giving the engineers and designers their marching orders for what they wanted to do."

So all Ken and his team knew when they got started at Apple was that it was going to have "really exciting products", and "great people thinking about great things." Their first orders were to "just tell the world that we're alive and well, [and that] the spirit of Apple is burning brightly."

The campaign wasn't just unusual because it was selling a company that didn't have anything to sell. It was also targeted, well, Differently.

Segal says that they wanted to address three groups of people. The biggest problem they had to overcome was that "Apple had really been fairly mediocre for the 11 years before". So firstly, they had to appeal to those "who used to know the Apple that was very successful, and had basically just watched it whither over 11 years."

But because such a long time had passed, "there was a whole new generation of people who'd never known a successful Apple". To this younger group, "they were just always mediocre."

But the third target audience for "Think Different" is most telling of all: the company's own staff. They "really needed to be inspired, because they had suffered through three CEOs that didn't seem to be able to light the fire."

Not only was "Think Different" created before Chiat Day knew about the products in the pipeline, it actually had roots from before their time working for Apple:

At our first meeting with Steve he explained the lay of the land. . .

He asked us to give it some thought, share some ideas and then, if we all liked each other, we would commit. And there was one other agency that he thought he might be interested in talking to, although I'm not sure if he ever really did. Maybe he just told us that to get us more competitive.

One of the ideas they came up with was the campaign which won them the contract. But credit where it's due:

What I love about the Think Different words, by the way, and I wish I could say I came up with them, but it was actually an art director by the name of Craig Tanimoto. Art Directors don't often come up with the words, but this one did it.

And they were very, very authentic. You think, like, wow, they could have hung that sign up in the garage when they created the very first Apple computer.

Whether through serendipity or foresight on the part of Jobs, the Think Different campaign led smoothly into Apple's first post-Jobs product launch: the iMac. Segall says that:

We're there, doing this 'Think Different' thing. Showing the world the people that Apple admired, nothing to do with computers, all very emotional and aspirational. But for six months we ran Think Different, Think Different, Think Different – and then suddenly we have the iMac. Which looks like it did. You could literally have put a photo of the iMac up there just saying 'Think Different' and it would have been perfect.

So then we did that.

So right was the Think Different campaign that Apple hasn't run a brand campaign since. For the past decade and a half, the company has been famously product-focused. We asked Segall why he thinks Apple never went back to the well.

That's actually a really interesting and important point. Most companies... there's often the question of do we run a brand campaign... or do we do a product campaign. The advertising people often want to do the brand campaign because it's so imagey and fun and different, whereas the clients are like 'well, that's not really going to sell our product.'

The interesting thing about Apple is that everything about that brand campaign was 'Think Different', and then when the products started appearing that looked different, it all tied in.

And so then we started just running these product ads, with these beautiful images of products that you'd never really seen before, that were all signed off 'Think Different'. The product ads actually became brand ads.

To this day, Apple's brand has means innovation, unexpected fresh new technology, so all they have to do is put a picture of this wonderful product up there. It couldn't be more perfect. Other companies would die to have that. They can't just show pictures of their products and expect it to work to build the brand as well.

Steve Jobs

Segall worked closely with Steve Jobs, not only at Apple after his return, but also at NeXT, the company Jobs founded after being ousted from Apple in 1985. Like many, he saw the genesis of the modern Apple in that period of exile:

John Scully [the CEO of Apple who ousted Jobs] came out and said – before Steve died, even – that Apple made a mistake, that they should not have driven Steve away. He came to realise that, given the success he had in later years, Apple should have retained Steve in some capacity.

I think that's bull.

Because Steve really had sort of run the company in to the ground. There were a lot of unhappy people, factions, and all that stuff. Had he stayed I don't think any of this stuff would have happened.

I think him going to NeXT and having to start a company from scratch, mature as a business person and make new business partnerships with people to finance the company [helped]. And then on top of it, the product he developed ended up being the thing that Apple needed, the NeXTStep software.

Without that, Apple wouldn't have had a next generation operating system, and they wouldn't have had as much reason to bring Steve back. So it's almost like all too perfect.

It's like Steve grew up, he had this technology, and it was exactly what Apple needed at that moment to kick off as they did.

Segall remembers Jobs as a complex man, who not only had his well publicised angry side, but was charming, funny and compassionate. These less commonly seen sides of his personality were best demonstrated by Segall's story of Steve Jobs and the Golden Ticket:

We're approaching the time when the one millionth iMac is going to be sold, and that's a huge thing. They were about to go out of business, and now this computer was so popular we've actually sold a million of them. I think it was in about a years time, which was fairly amazing, maybe even a bit less, I can't remember.

And [Steve] was going to put a golden certificate in one box. Whoever opened that box was going to get the trip to Cupertino, he would meet them with top hat and tails, and they'd do the Wonka walk.

Everyone in the room was kind of like looking at each other, like 'oh my god, is he really going to do this?' But fortunately we had some legal issues. . .

He was basically stopped by a quirk of California gambling law, wasn't he?

Yeah, because it would have to be presented as a sweepstake. So anybody on earth could just put their name in the chest and get in the drawing.

So you'd get some 90-year-old granny who'd entered?

Yeah, or some guy who owned a Dell. . . You know, maybe it's just us, maybe it's an overreaction, but I'll bet you he could have pulled it off, too.

He really did do everything he did because he wanted to make the world a better place. He may have done it in certain brutish ways but his goals were really to help push the human race forward.

Which, by the way, is the one line that Steve inserted in to Think Different. "They pushed the human race forwards". And I always thought that that was sort of miraculous, because of all the lines in that commercial, I thought that was the one that best described what he did.

Insanely Simple, by Ken Segall, is available in paperback from 7 June, £14.99

Think Different.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.