Ken Segall is the man who named the iMac. He’s also a creative director with a long history with the advertising firm TBWAChiatDay, 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” 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.
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