Dec 15

The great Apple advertising experiment

experiment-timRecently, Apple hired Tor Myhren as VP of Marketing Communications.

He comes from Grey, where he was the global chief creative officer and president of the NY office.

To borrow some new Star Wars terminology, he’s a big deal in advertising.

On the surface, Tor’s hiring is what it is. But if you look a bit deeper, there are all sorts of juicy implications.

To better appreciate, one must first understand how Apple’s marketing has worked in the past, Steve Jobs-style.

Steve kept things simple. Basically, he trusted the right people to do the right job. He had the ad agency (called TBWA\Chiat\Day in 1997, becoming Media Arts Lab later) and his in-house creative group. The two had separate and distinct responsibilities.

The agency developed the big ad campaigns and the in-house group owned apple.com, product packaging and themes/signage for the retail Apple Stores.

As one can see from the work that came from both sides during Steve’s reign, this arrangement worked incredibly well. The company was truly firing on all marketing cylinders.

However, the reality is that it only worked well because of that Steve guy—and the sheer force of his will.

Like all human beings, creative people have territorial instincts. So, despite the fact that both sides got along for the greater good, there was always a bit of tension in the air.

The agency people were wary that the in-house group might encroach on their turf, and the in-house people truly did want to be more involved—though Steve consistently swatted down any such suggestion.

He was correct in doing so.

That’s because there’s a huge difference between a great ad agency and a great design group. Designers are tremendously important, especially in the world of Apple, but design is only a part of marketing. A great ad agency offers vision, strategic insight, high-level concepts and writing skill. Importantly, it also brings an “outsider’s view” to the table.

The agency and Apple’s in-house creative group were both best-in-class—but they worked in different worlds. In keeping responsibilities separate, Steve ensured that Apple got the best of both worlds.

Steve’s death changed the balance of power.

Without Steve to keep order, the agency-client relationship quickly became strained. Email evidence presented in court by Samsung showed that Phil Schiller and Tim Cook discussed firing the agency because it was “no longer giving Apple what it needed.” Which is interesting, because when Steve ran the show, the agency seemed to give Apple exactly what it needed.

Rumors began to fly that Apple was creating a giant in-house marketing group. Its own internal ad agency. New campaigns were no longer automatically assigned to the agency. Instead, there was an open competition between the agency and in-house teams. May the best idea win.

In this sense, Apple was beginning to act like a typical big company, where multiple teams vie for the prize in a layered organization and ideas are evaluated against checklists.

Again, this is in stark contrast to Steve Jobs’s way. Steve preferred to work with a small group of smart people. He judged work by his instincts. If he didn’t like one idea, the agency would try again. It was this sense of ownership that inspired people to work around the clock in the pursuit of greatness.

Now (at long last) we get to the hiring of Tor Myhren.

Tor’s hiring comes with the quieter announcement that longtime in-house creative leader Hiroki Asai is “retiring.” I really liked Hiroki. He’s a good guy and a talented designer. But he isn’t exactly entering his golden years. So … retiring?

Far more believable is the idea that an in-house agency needs the leadership of an accomplished agency guy.

If you want to see where all of this is leading, you also have to look at it from Tor’s point of view. Tor is a global player in the agency world. He thrives on creating big, breakthrough ad campaigns. He wouldn’t accept a job at Apple if it involved anything less.

So, yes, it sure looks like Apple is building internal ad agency.

If that’s true, what then is the fate of Media Arts Lab (MAL)? This was Steve’s chosen ad agency. It launched the original Macintosh with “1984.” It created Think different  and virtually all ad campaigns during Apple’s extraordinary rise from the ashes.

When it became public that Apple had considered firing the agency, I always thought that was a long shot. Too extreme. Given the agency’s rich history with Steve, and the trust Steve put in it, such a decision would create some blowback.

If nothing else, it would be a symbolic statement that Apple was chucking Steve Jobs’s way of doing things.

Fortunately for Apple (and not so much for MAL), there’s an easier way to get a divorce. There’s no reason to fire an agency when you can just give them less work.

If MAL is currently competing with internal Apple teams for campaign ideas, there can simply be less competition in the future. Tor will control the assignments, and dole out the work as he sees fit—until the day that MAL says “screw this” and walks away by its own volition.

Clearly, Tor’s goal will be to assemble a creative team capable of creating on the level of a real ad agency.

Tor’s hiring brings with it one other little twist. That is, Tor is said to report directly to Tim Cook. In other words, Phil Schiller will no longer be directing the advertising effort. Phil’s portfolio of responsibilities has been broadened with his new responsibility for the App Store, but it’s been reduced (eliminated?) on the marketing side.

This is excellent news for Apple, in that Phil was never even close to being the Steve Jobs of advertising.

However, for this big change at Apple to be seen as a positive, one must believe that a big company having an in-house ad agency is a good idea. And there is ample evidence in this world that it is not. Rarely does such an internal organization churn out world-class advertising.

Then again, it’s rare for an internal ad agency to hire a guy like Tor Myhren. So who knows. Maybe Apple will be the exception to the rule.

Or maybe it will just keep sliding further and further away from the model that worked so well for Steve Jobs.

We’ll soon find out…



  • Gest2016

    The original iPod ads had me dancing and crying. I can’t even remember an Apple ad post Steve Jobs.

  • wilyoldfox

    Oh dear! Apple should stick to being experts in computing and hire an agency which is expert in advertising. They may have made a few ads, but the move to a mega in-house agency is barking mad. Let’s hope that Tor Myhren has the good sense to revert to MAL.

  • dorkus_maximus

    The model that worked so well for Steve was the model that worked so well with Steve. Who at Apple could play the role that Jobs played in Apple advertising?

    Perhaps having a guy like Tor Myrhen, properly educated on Apple from the inside, will give Apple a fighting chance of having someone who at least in this respect can replace Jobs.

  • rogifan

    I am concerned if this signals Apple’s advertising will all be in-house from now on. It is interesting that advertising was taken away from Schiller (or he chose to give it up) but there’s no evidence Tim Cook is the right guy to approve ad campaigns either. Unless he’s not going to have the final say and let Tor do as he wishes? But that also rasises a concern: who has the final say inside Apple now? Does Tim Cook actually weigh in with his opinions or does he let every executive do as they please? Did Cook sign off on that horrible Apple Music segment at WWDC or did he let Eddy Cue do what he wanted without any editorial control?

  • Pingback: Link: The great Apple advertising experiment « Observatory | Steve Kirks()

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  • Richard Earney

    Who did the Shot on iPhone campaign? To me that was quintessential Apple – slick, minimalist.

  • The original iPod ads—you mean the first one, with the geeky guy dancing awkwardly after unplugging his iPod from his MacBook? Or the ones with the people singing acapella in front of a white background? No, I know what ones you’re talking about of course—they were great—just hoping to remind people that Apple had plenty of duds during the Steve Jobs era as well. Anyone remember “Middle Seat,” where the young guy blares Who Let The Dogs Out from his iBook during a flight? There’ve always been hits and misses.

    I’m optimistic about Tor Myrhen joining Apple.

  • Leland Bentley

    I think they should hire Steve Wozniak to do it. At least then we’d finally get an acknowledgement of the Apple ][ guys.

  • talkRAYdio

    hey Ken, wonder if you might have some thoughts on this story:


  • mkmmjm

    dear! Apple should stick to being experts in computing and hire an agency which is expert in advertising. They may have made a few ads, but the move to a mega in-house agency is barking mad. Let’s hope that Tor Myhren has the good sense







  • I’ve also not been impressed with Schiller’s judgement on advertising, and few are more respected in the industry than Tor (FWIW, he gave me the use of GREY’s “Town Square” auditorium space, for my first TEDxSiliconAlley in 2011, but I digress).

    This move actually does not surprise me. Advertising aside, Apple has often done more in-house than most companies, and few things are more important to Apple than their brand. To me this feels like an expected move.

    I could also see this playing out a different way, with Tor reporting to Tim, he could build a small in-house team to create their brand campaigns, then have his group manage the outsourcing of product and direct campaigns.