We all know that things are different in the post-Steve Apple.
However, there’s something about the current move to build an in-house marketing agency that’s really, really different.
Unlike previous changes, this one isn’t driven by Tim Cook.
It comes from a new place, deeper inside the company — from those who long played a part in Steve Jobs’ marketing machine.
The industry and the press seem to be surprised by this development. To many others, it’s a wonder it didn’t happen sooner.
A little background to start with…
THE BENEVOLENT DICTATOR
Though Steve encouraged debate, his dictator side made it clear that some things were not debatable. One of those things was the way Apple handled its marketing.
He set up two distinct areas of responsibility.
Longtime agency TBWA\Chiat\Day (Media Arts Lab) was responsible for major campaigns, including broadcast, outdoor and print. Apple’s in-house design group was responsible for the Apple website, Apple Store materials and package design.
Having separate duties, however, did not stop either side from having opinions about what the other was doing.
Some inside Apple privately criticized the work coming out of the agency, or had issues with its strategies.
But Steve protected his relationship with the agency, and the agency did the same.
HUMAN NATURE STRIKES AGAIN
When Steve passed away, his marketing process lived on. But few people imagined it would stay intact for long.
For when opportunity presents itself, human beings have a bad habit of acting very human.
Call it ego, ambition, a sincere desire to improve, or any combination thereof — suddenly there was a chance to “make things better.”
That chance came courtesy of a new CEO who basically said “This isn’t my area of expertise, so I trust you guys to do the right thing.”
Depending on your point of view, those words either opened the magic door — or opened Pandora’s box.
HOW THINGS CHANGE
Jony Ive was Steve’s design soulmate. There was no internal equivalent when it came to advertising. The agency was his Jony.
Of course, Steve had Phil Schiller and others as marketing advisors. But his relationship with the agency was special — forged through many years of history-making ads.
As much as the agency wanted Phil to be happy, the highest priority was making Steve happy.
So it didn’t take a genius to guess that when Phil became the marketing leader, the nature of the agency relationship would change dramatically.
As the new chief, Phil was veto-proof. However, he did not have the same level of taste as Steve. Nor did he have an emotional connection to the agency.
The agency’s magic shield had lost its power source — and the critics inside Apple gained a louder voice.
IS THE AGENCY INNOCENT?
Not to be too cynical, but nobody in this world is innocent. (I’ll spare you the list of my many crimes.)
In one way of looking at it, the agency is now getting a raw deal. After all, it’s been responsible for Apple’s greatest advertising moments, of which there have been many. It has an intimate knowledge of, and deep love for, all things Apple.
Seen another way, some of the agency’s chickens are coming home to roost.
Advertising is a relationship business. If the agency chose not to lavish the love on Phil, or chose to put someone on the front line who didn’t get along with Phil, it bears responsibility for that decision.
The details are unknown. Suffice it to say that a client-agency relationship is like a marriage, with its inevitable ups and downs. Even back in the “Think different” days, Steve was not above threatening to take his business elsewhere.
It takes commitment to stick together during tough times — and that’s something that seems to be running thin at Apple these days.
WHO NEEDS AN AGENCY ANYWAY?
It’s not unprecedented for a company to set up an in-house marketing group. It’s important to note, though, that great agencies offer advantages that are hard to duplicate:
• Experience. Agency leaders, like TBWA’s Lee Clow, have been building powerful, beloved brands for decades. Just being in the same room with a person like that makes you feel smarter.
• Strategy. Again, experience counts. Great agencies bring a fresh perspective to the table, discovering unexpected approaches.
• Media smarts. A huge part of Apple’s advertising success has can be attributed to brilliant use of media. Smart thinking in this department gives Apple its presence.
• Global vision. The TBWA agency network powers Apple advertising (media and localization) in dozens of offices around the world. It takes years to build a quality operation on this scale.
• An independent point of view. Great agencies don’t just take orders. They dream up new ideas. They push back. They live and breathe the client’s business, but maintain an outsider’s perspective.
CERTAIN DOOM OR A BRAVE NEW ERA?
Big companies can make life hellish for agencies. Conversely, big agencies can make life hellish for clients.
The idea of a big company like Apple building an 1,000-strong internal marketing group might sound like the worst of both worlds.
But anyone who speaks in absolutes can’t be taken seriously.
Is it possible for Apple to innovate in marketing to the same degree it’s innovated with products?
Of course it is. The fact is, the creative people Apple has recently hired are highly talented and well respected in the business.
Just as Jony Ive’s designers thrive in the Apple environment, so might creative people and marketing pros thrive in Apple’s in-house agency.
My biggest concern is creative leadership.
Back in 1997, when Steve was just returning to Apple, he told me why it was important to have Lee Clow back in the Apple family. It was because of his talent, of course. But, as Steve put it, it was also because “I need someone with barnacles.”
His point was that anyone can hire brilliant creative people. Having a great creative leader, having that adult in the room with that extraordinary track record, was equally important to Steve.
I’m interested to see how Apple staffs up this mighty marketing machine, and to see the work it generates.
Apple makes the decisions, so Apple bears responsibility for the results.
I know I’ve used this quote before, but I repeat it here because it’s so perfectly appropriate: “The client always gets the advertising it deserves.”
We’ll find out soon enough what Apple deserves.