Jun 16

Has Apple lost its simplicity?

Last week, I wrote an article for The Guardian with the above title. It was a question, not a conclusion, and I tried to offer a thoughtful opinion. Sadly, The Guardian chose to give it a click-bait headline that contradicted my point of view. So, for the record, here is the complete article as originally intended.

 Four years ago, I wrote a book about Apple and the power of simplicity.

It was the result of my observation, having worked with Steve Jobs as his ad agency creative director in the Think different years, that Apple’s stellar growth was rooted in Steve’s love of simplicity.

This love—you might call it obsession—could be seen in Apple’s hardware, software, packaging, marketing, retail store design, even the company’s internal organization.


Even back in the 70s, Apple was professing its love for simplicity

But that was four years ago.

Though Apple’s customers remain fiercely loyal, the natives are getting restless. A growing number of people are sensing that Tim Cook’s Apple isn’t as simple as Steve Jobs’s Apple. They see complexity in expanding product lines, confusing product names, and the products themselves.

Is this just perception, or is it reality? Has Apple developed a problem with simplicity? Or is it simply maturing as one should expect from a global company?

It’s difficult to be objective because Apple has become the world’s most overanalyzed company. It’s created passionate fans and passionate detractors.

Maybe I can help. My experience with Steve Jobs has led me to admire Apple—but I also believe in tough love. This is a good time to put emotions aside and take a cold, hard look at Apple’s current “state of simplicity.” Continue reading →

May 16

Heroes of simplicity

My new book, Think Simple, will be published on June 7th. While my previous book focused on the power of simplicity as practiced by Steve Jobs and Apple, the new one looks outward. I spent time with more than 40 business leaders around the world to learn how they succeed through simplicity. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll feature a few of their stories. Starting with this one…

BENNINGTON, VT - JULY 3: Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, partners of a homemade ice cream stand, Ben & Jerry's, in Bennington, Vt. (Photo by Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Like many, I’ve been conscious of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for most of my life.

Based simply on what I read, heard and tasted, my image of Ben & Jerry’s was (1) really good ice cream with outrageous mix-in flavors, and (2) a company that was pretty “out there.” It seemed that Ben and Jerry were basically hippies with their own take on how a company should be run.

Remember, these were the guys who once found a new CEO by running a “Yo! I’m your new CEO!” essay contest.

Ben and Jerry made it a point to have fun, but they were also outspoken in their belief that companies should do good in the world. They now have a history of being involved in the community and taking stands on social issues—oftentimes controversial ones.

Almost 40 years after its founding, the Ben & Jerry’s brand is still crystal-clear, more than ten years after the company was purchased by the the giant Unilever. Continue reading →

Mar 15

Waking from an Apple Watch hangover

We don’t like to make hot-headed remarks about Apple new-product events around these parts. Better to let things sink in for a while.

Okay, time’s up.

A few random comments about yesterday’s Apple Watch and MacBook event.

The broadcast
Glitch-free and a pleasure to watch. With the accompanying tweet-cast, Apple has become quite spiffy with these things. My only issue with it was…

The tweets
I couldn’t help but wince while reading some of the pre-event tweets. Steve Jobs hated any writing that sounded like marketing-speak, but such inhibitions seemed to have melted way here. It was a mix of trying to be cool (Getting psyched backstage listening to I Lived by @OneRepublic), trying to be clever (Please make sure your seat is in an upright position. It’s almost time for takeoff.) and sounding like an ad (People grab their seats before the keynote grabs their attention). Continue reading →

Jun 14

Shooting blanks at Apple

I love the smell of exaggeration in the morning. (Illustration: Fortune.)

With a rising stock price, cheery forecasts from major analysts and growing anticipation for iPhone 6 and iWatch, it’s getting harder and harder to write negative articles about Apple’s prospects.

But, naturally, some people do.

Surprisingly, it was Adam Lashinsky who recently rose to the challenge with his article for Fortune entitled Apple’s newest product: Complexity.

Compelling headline. Compelling visual. The only thing it lacks is a compelling argument.

In fact, it’s an excellent example of how even the smarter Apple journalists can be seduced by the lure of Apple doom-casting. Continue reading →

Oct 12

Reflecting on the iPad mini event

I’m still calling this the iPad mini event. But that’s only because it sounds much simpler than the MacBook Pro/iMac/iPad mini event. That was quite a boatload of technology.

Some observations:

Tim Cook. I thought he was much improved yesterday — compared to his performance at the iPhone 5 event, where he seemed overly coached and eager to hurl those adjectives.

The even-newer iPad. Surprise. The 4th generation comes only seven months after the 3rd generation. Never seen that before. Of course an update was necessary, if only to add the Lightning connector. Apple couldn’t very well be selling millions of iPads for the holidays sporting a connector that has no future.

The next new iPad? Taking iPad off its regular spring update schedule is a smart marketing move. By moving to a fall update schedule, Apple will enter every holiday season with a brand-new iPad. That’ll throw a bit more fuel on the flame. Continue reading →

Apr 12

An email signature that says it all

Credit: Tweet from Jason Prell

I once knew a keyboard player who put black tape over the huge YAMAHA that faced the audience when he played his synthesizer on stage.

He even wrote Yamaha a letter saying that if they wanted him to advertise their company when he played, they’d have to pay him a fee.

Thirty years later, he’s still waiting for a response.

That’s the way I’ve always felt about the default email signatures that ship with smartphones and tablets these days.

“Sent from my iPhone” is fairly harmless. However, I don’t feel the need to give Apple a free ride on every email I send. (By now, I imagine my friend has sent Apple a letter as well.)

Whatever, these default signatures are now commonplace. And just as the socks we choose to wear say something about us, these signatures say something about the companies that put them there. Or, in some cases, the multiple companies who put them there. Continue reading →

Feb 12

And now, a different kind of Apple book

True confession time:

I’ve written a book.

Something tells me you won’t be surprised when I tell you it’s about Steve Jobs and Apple. But this book is different. Really.

That’s because (a) I had a unique vantage point to some pivotal events in Apple history, and (b) this book focuses on one thing alone — the core value that has driven Apple since the beginning.

Insanely Simple is about Apple’s obsession with Simplicity.

You can see Simplicity in everything Apple does: the way it organizes, innovates and communicates. In fact, one could argue that it was Steve’s unrelenting passion for Simplicity that helped Apple rise from near-death in 1997 to become the most valuable company on Earth in 2011.

My observations come from over 12 years of experience as Steve’s agency creative director, from NeXT to Apple. Also relevant to my story are the years I spent on the agency team during John Sculley’s rule at Apple. And then I had some interesting (and often excruciating) experiences in the worlds of Dell, Intel and IBM — which made me even more conscious of what sets Apple apart.

To Steve Jobs, Simplicity was a religion. But it was also a weapon — one that he used to humble competitors once thought to be invincible.

Apple’s devotion to Simplicity is the one constant that can be traced from the first Apple II computer all the way to today’s iPad. Though the company’s success is built upon engineering and design skills, it’s the love of Simplicity that truly powers Apple, revolution after revolution.

Technically, this is a business book. The idea is that in a complicated world, nothing stands out like Simplicity. If you better understand how Apple’s obsession has driven its success, you can adopt the same principles to boost your own organization — or your own career.

That said, Insanely Simple is a general interest book too. It’s a fun read for anyone who’d like to know what it was like to work in Steve’s world during the rebirth of Apple. It will give you a better understanding of what makes Apple Apple.

Crass salesmanship alert: I think you’ll like it. In my book, as I do in my blog, I use my personal experiences with Apple, NeXT and other companies to illustrate the power of Simplicity — and to warn of the evils of Complexity. Many of my stories have never been told publicly, so you’ll find more than a few surprises.

There’s a bit more about the book here.

Insanely Simple is available April 26th, but you gain extra appreciation points if you pre-order — which you can do at iBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound and 800-CEO-read.

Last, I invite you to join my new mail list over there in the sidebar. I promise not to abuse the privilege, and I’d love to make you part of my secret club.

Thanks all!

Mar 11

Dell rearranges the deck chairs

The marketing business is full of smart people doing it their way.

Then they get fired.

And new people step in to do things their way.

It happens at clients, it happens at agencies. It’s happened before, and you can be pretty sure it’s going to happen again.

In marketing, there is a time-honored tradition of revamping, rejigging and restructuring — and a fairly dismal record of these moves producing desired results.

Far be it from Dell to buck tradition. In 2008, after years of dissatisfaction with their marketing, they boldly consolidated the work of many agencies into one new global entity. Now they’re boldly going back to where they started. They’ve recently named three new agencies to handle consumer, small/medium business and public/govt marketing, leaving “brand strategy” at its current agency (Y&R).

Unfortunately, Dell has proven itself more than capable of floundering under either system. Whether they have one agency or a boatload, they find new ways to run their brand into the ground. They have many ideas about how to fix things, yet they never seem to wake up with that wide-eyed epiphany: “My god! It wasn’t our agencies. It was us all along!”

Given the facts, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Dell’s multi-decade record of marketing mediocrity has almost miraculously survived a parade of agencies and internal reorganizations. By sheer chance, you’d expect them to do better at some point.

What Dell suffers is what many brands suffer: a lack of appreciation for great marketing and the power of creativity.

It’s really that simple. They don’t put value on such things, and therefore they don’t invest in such things.

Dell could easily go out and spend a small fraction of what they spent on their agency search (millions) to hire a well-traveled and passionate expert to lead the marketing charge. Of course, they’d have to be willing to give that person real responsibility, and the chances of that are virtually nonexistent.

In a world where the power of simplicity is on display every day, Dell digs in its heels. They’d rather create a grid of agencies that segregates strategy and creative than recognize the power of those things being conceived and implemented together.

Let us not forget that agencies are ruthless creatures. Ultimately they will claw and scratch for a bigger piece of the pie. I think Dell likes it that way though. In their world, this type of competition is a good thing.

Others — Apple and IBM included — would say that partnership is a far more powerful thing.

Feb 11

Great ads vs. laundry lists

As we all know, ads can fail for a number of reasons: bad creative, bad strategy and bad clients.

It takes a special kind of client to understand that the best way to win a customer’s heart is to focus on a single compelling point — not to stuff a commercial full of goodness.

Some clients just have a laundry list of points they want to get into their ad, and they find it impossible to let go.

Even Steve Jobs is capable of having — as Pink Floyd once said — a momentary lapse of reason. I saw it with my own eyes at a meeting when Steve was trying to get the agency to squeeze a few more product benefits into an ad we were about to produce.

Sitting across the table from Steve was Lee Clow, past and current leader of Apple’s agency. Lee crumpled up 4-5 pieces of paper and tossed one to Steve. “This is a good ad,” said Lee, as Steve easily caught it.

Then, all at once, Lee tossed the remaining pile of crumpled balls of paper to Steve and he caught none of them. “That’s a bad ad,” said Lee.

If I’d known that the incident would have become a blog post, I’d have made it a point to remember if Steve then let us have our way. But I do stand behind the principle, as would most every right-thinking marketing person.

Simplicity beats complexity every time.

People tend to remember one thing well said better than a laundry list well recited.

Fortunately, just as I need to illustrate the point, Dell rushes in with a new ad. Or, more accurately, a new laundry list. It goes like this:

If you buy an Inspiron 15R (catchy name, fellas), you’ll get:

(1) More fun, (2) more control, (3) more durability, (4) more sales support, (5) for less, (6) with an Intel Core i3 processor for (7) faster multitasking and (8) McAfee Security Center. It concludes, of course, with the dueling theme lines, “You can tell it’s Dell” and “The power to do more.”

When y0u compare the Dell-style  laundry-list commercial to a more single-minded Apple commercial (like “Mac vs. PC), it’s not hard to understand why Apple is better at winning both customers and advertising awards.

Dec 10

The double-edged sword of simplicity

At an early age, I came to believe that the necessities of life included food, a place to sleep and a massive wall of stereo equipment.

Certainly the old me would be appalled to see what the new me has turned into. I still love music. But that wall of equipment has vanished, replaced by a tiny stereo box that pulls music from my iTunes library. Pretty cool, but not exactly audiophile-grade.

I’m not fooling myself. I totally get that I’ve taken a step back in power and quality. It just makes things simpler.

It’s not like I haven’t seen friends and associates evolve in the same way. A great many are sacrificing some of those traditional indulgences in favor of simplicity — and they’ve never been happier.

It’s a trend that reaches well beyond music. According to a story in The New York Times last week, more and more people are leaving their point-and-shoot cameras at home because it’s just so much easier to carry a single device — a smartphone. They totally get that their photos aren’t as good. It’s a conscious choice. Simplicity matters.

Technically, these people are taking two steps backward. The point-and-shoot camera had already weaned us off the quality of a real camera (SLR). Such is the power of convenience.

So. Is our society going down the sewer? Are we lowering our standards and settling for second-best just because it’s easier? Will our standards continue to crumble? Will high-quality music and photography now go the way of vinyl?

Well, let’s face it. Most people were never really connoisseurs in the first place. They’ve always chosen the cheaper, easier way. For a great many people, what’s simpler today is actually elevating standards and adding a new dimension of fun to their life. For those who are truly sacrificing quality, most are making a conscious decision to simplify their lives in one way so they can improve their lives in other ways — allocating time and money toward more important things.

So I hesitate to forecast mankind’s doom as a result of this trend. People aren’t so much trading power for simplicity as they are validating the fact that there is power in simplicity.

Which is why those who design for this basic human instinct will always come out on top.