Ken Segall worked closely with Steve Jobs as his ad agency creative director for over 12 years spanning NeXT and Apple. He led the advertising team behind the “Think different” campaign that helped revitalize the Apple brand when Steve returned from exile in 1997; he co-wrote the first commercial ever to win an Emmy; and he set Apple down the i-way by naming the iMac. Having served as global creative director at agencies for Dell, IBM and Intel, Ken is in a unique position to describe how Apple’s culture sets it far apart from its competitors. And that’s just what he’s done in his bestselling book, Insanely Simple. Illustrating his points with behind-the-scenes stories from Steve Jobs’ world, Ken shows how the love of simplicity has guided the way Apple organizes, innovates, communicates and markets — and how simplicity has helped build the most valuable company on earth. Ken currently does creative work, branding and product naming for major brands. He blogs about technology and marketing at kensegall.com, and he has fun with it all at his Apple satire site, Scoopertino.com.
* * *
Morris: Before discussing Insanely Simple, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?
Segall: At the risk of sounding like I’m obsessed with all things Apple, the easy answer to that question is: Steve Jobs. He was a truly remarkable person in so many ways, probably even more so to those who got to see him up close. I don’t think I ever left a meeting with Steve without being amazed how intensely smart and focused he was. I’m not at all surprised he was able to accomplish what he did. So to me, Steve was a person to be admired, and he opened my eyes to the things that are possible when you put all your energy into what you believe. We’ve all heard stories about the not-so-nice things that Steve did, and many of those stories are true. But there was also a side to Steve that never got much press. He could be charming, energizing and even fun. He was a complicated mix — but I found him to be an inspiration, and he changed the way I live and work.
Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?
Segall: Every few years, I stumble upon my college transcript in a dusty file, and I’m always amazed — because I haven’t the faintest memory of having taken 99% of those classes. In my case, college was really more of a training ground for learning how to succeed. It presented me with a goal (getting a degree), and let me figure out the best way to achieve it. Learning how to allocate time and money to achieve a goal is a good foundation for a young person just setting out in life. Ironically, I took an aptitude test before I entered college (Penn State) that indicated I might be a good fit in the world of advertising. That sounded somewhat interesting to me, so that’s what I signed up for. However, just seven weeks into my first term, I abandoned ship on that major and never looked back. I graduated with a BA degree and decided to play drums instead.
That’s what I did for the next seven years, until at the ripe old age of 29, I ended up in… advertising. I really should have given that aptitude test more credence. Given my experience, I’m always surprised to meet advertising people who actually studied for that profession. All the more power to them, but I found that my worldly adventures really helped me when I did get into advertising at a more advanced age. I had a better understanding of what makes people tick, and was able to tap into this understanding when I wrote headlines and copy. I probably advanced in the business more quickly than those starting right out of school.
Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?
Segall: Because I started later than most, and therefore had some maturity going for me, I don’t lament any lack of knowledge when I broke into the business. In fact, I often talk about how my innocence and idealism served as a business advantage. To me, the advertising business was fresh and exciting, and I didn’t get why some of the older people seemed to be trying to find a way out. One of the things that got me excited about working in an agency was the intelligence and wit I saw all around me. Unlike a lot of my fellow musicians, my advertising colleagues actually read newspapers. They were stimulating to be around. Very quickly, I felt like “these are my people.” Of course, there were some embarrassing moments as I learned what advertising was all about. Starting at Chiat/Day in L.A., I distinctly remember the first time I saw the form upon which copywriters would submit their final work. At the top of the page, in big type, it said “COPY.” I thought that was special paper for the Xerox machine. Little did I know that a career in copy awaited me.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.
Segall: This probably isn’t the answer you’d expect, but I’ll go with The Hudsucker Proxy. First, I’m a Coen Brothers fan (I did short promotional film with them about Apple’s Final Cut Studio video editing suite some years ago). Second, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, it has some wonderfully exaggerated characters and improbable plot lines. Yet we get an interesting assortment of the things we see in business every day: plotting, scheming, backstabbing, subterfuge and greed. I say all of this tongue-in-cheek, of course, but the movie wouldn’t be fun if such things didn’t actually exist in the corporate world. So in that sense you might even consider it educational.
Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:
“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”
Segall: This reminds me of the spirit with which Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak designed and built the earliest Apple computers. They knew they were creating a tool that could help people in every industry, in every endeavor — and they knew that human imagination would keep dreaming up new ways to use computers. Just imagine the millions and millions of people who have looked at their computer display and proudly thought, “I did that myself.” It’s pretty remarkable.
Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”
Segall: This one reminds me of certain frustrating clients I’ve worked with. There are some who stand up and deliver wonderfully motivating speeches to their marketing troops, exhorting them to break through the clutter, to be creative, to be fearless. Unfortunately, it often turns out to be nothing more than a good speech. When their people get serious about disrupting “the way we do things here,” things get complicated. There aren’t a lot of people willing to put their jobs on the line.
Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?
Segall: Organizational judgment is one of those ideas that sounds empowering, conjuring the image of a place we’d all love to work. Personally, I don’t buy it. Would Apple have soared to such astronomical heights had it not been for the decision-making ability of the “Great Man” at the top of the hierarchy? You don’t have to look far to find more examples of individual leaders whose vision and skills were instrumental in building truly great companies. The fact is, every company is different. Some will soar under the guidance of the Great Man, others will do better depending on organizational judgment. Maybe it’s time to trot out a baseball analogy. Clearly business is a team sport, and all players have a role to play — but there’s no denying that sometimes it’s the superstar player who carries the team to greatness.
Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?
Segall: Unfortunately, mistakes aren’t the type of things that one can aim in one direction or another. They’re mistakes. They’re unpredictable. I think it’s important for people to be able to make mistakes, and not be encumbered by the fear that a single mistake will sink the ship. It won’t. Apple has made plenty of mistakes, each of which they have corrected quickly and (hopefully) learned from. When you shoot for the stars, mistakes sometimes happen. Companies that allow their people (or agencies) the freedom to make mistakes ultimately gain far more than they might lose from the occasional misfire.
Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?
Segall: Not to beat the concept of my book to death here, but I think the greatest challenge is simplifying. Back when the Internet bubble burst, my industry was profoundly affected. Many ad agencies were laying off a third of their workforce. Interestingly, when business started to return to normal, the rehiring didn’t materialize. Most found that the bodies they shed really weren’t necessary. They could do better work, and faster work, when the organization was leaner. Though this was forced upon them by financial realities, my sense is that CEOs need to take simplification very seriously. I’m not talking about cutting and slashing. I’m talking about creating simpler internal processes that exist to keep great ideas intact as they mature from concept to finished product. Simpler structures lead to better productivity, happier people — and more business.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Insanely Simple. When and why did you decide to write it?
Segall: I played with the concept of Insanely Simple for many years. To be honest, it might never have occurred to me to write this book if my only experience was with Apple. It was when I started to do more work with other companies that I realized how different Apple was. I was shocked to find how much time and money was wasted in processes that didn’t make ideas better — and often made them worse. Being used to the way things worked at Apple, it just seemed that these companies were making everything needlessly complicated. Though many have written books explaining Apple’s success, nobody had noticed what seemed to obvious to me: Apple succeeds because it embraces the concept of simplicity — not just in the products it makes, but as a guideline across all departments. I think Apple’s example can improve the way any business or organization works.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Segall: Hate to disappoint you, but no. I had the book so well outlined that when it came to the writing, it was just a question of trying to write it in the most interesting way. One terrible thing did happen when I had just finished the manuscript though— Steve Jobs passed away. No matter how much we all knew that might happen, it came as a horrible shock. I didn’t touch the book for several days because it just sort of knocked the wind out of me. When I got back to the book, I realized I needed to re-write certain sections where I talked about Steve. I don’t mean just changing verb tenses, I mean that certain parts of the book needed to be written differently now that Steve was no longer with us. I wanted to give him the proper respect.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Segall: At the very beginning, going through all my old notes, I mapped out 24 principles of simplicity — which sounds like the opposite of simplicity. So I did a lot of work condensing and combining, my goal being to write a book that would feel simple, yet convey an important idea. Steve Jobs was a master at saying important things in a simple way, and I was hoping (maybe dreaming?) that maybe some little bit of that might have rubbed off on me.
Morris: You are one of only a few people who worked with Steve Jobs at both Apple and NeXT for so many years. Here’s my question: What were his defining characteristics when you first worked with him and to what extent (if any) was he significantly different when you worked with him again? Please explain.
Segall: In fact, I worked with Apple during the Sculley days for three years, I worked with Steve on NeXT for eight years, and then when Steve returned to Apple in 1997, I worked with him for another four years.
I think this is one of the more fascinating things about my days with Steve. Most of us are familiar with his life and accomplishments after he returned to Apple, but I got to see him in action during a very different time. After being forced out of Apple, he was still an iconic figure and a well-known “disrupter.” With NeXT, he was running a much smaller company — a startup — and he was fighting to show the world that he had a better idea. I began working on the business two years after the birth of NeXT, when it was ready to start selling its first computer. (NeXT’s first two years were devoted to conceiving, designing and building the new platform.) Unlike Apple, which was visible to most people, NeXT was aimed at the enterprise market. Here, it wasn’t Steve’s job to get consumers all excited. He was trying to convince CEOs and IT people that NeXT could help them create a more powerful, more flexible platform. It was a constant struggle, and NeXT never did achieve the success he was hoping for.
So was Steve a different person in those days? Actually, not. Even though his mission was very different, and the challenges were huge, his focus and behavior was very much like the Apple CEO he would become. He was as confident as ever, passionate about what he was doing and he pushed hard to make progress every day. When I look at old videos of Steve when he was in his 20s, I see the same person there too. His personality, his way of speaking, his demand for quality, his way with words — all of that was a part of Steve from the beginning.
Morris: You assert in the Introduction that “every one of Apple’s revolutions was born of the company’s devotion to Simplicity.” Please explain how that term was defined at Apple, and, the process by which it became one of the company’s core values throughout the enterprise.
Segall: I don’t believe the term was ever officially defined by Apple, or used outright as a mantra. Yet there was no mistaking Steve’s core belief in simplicity and its impact at every level of the company. This is why I felt that my book would be a worthwhile contribution to the public discussion of Apple’s success. Steve had this sensibility about him, and it colored the way he looked at everything: product design, advertising, company organization, manufacturing, customer service, and so on. He would always push to make things simpler because it was so obvious to him that the company would benefit from it. It seemed like common sense. Steve’s love of simplicity was felt throughout the company, and became a general guideline for all.
Morris: You refer to Complexity as Simplicity’s “evil twin.” How so “twin”?
Segall: I’m really just speaking of an “equal and opposite force” as one might observe in physics. The two forces are forever pulling each other back, as if there is some natural state of rest somewhere in the middle. When things get too complicated, some will no doubt try to make things simple. But when a system of simplicity is in place, there are always those who make it more complicated. Steve Jobs was incredibly good at making things simpler — but he was also very good at turning back the forces of complexity.
Morris: Here’s another observation in the Introduction that also caught my eye: “Simplicity is the love child of two of the most powerful forces in business: Brains and Common Sense.” How so “love child”? That implies at least some degree of illegitimacy.
Segall: The general meaning of “love child” is a child born out of wedlock. Brains and Common Sense are two very important attributes, but they don’t often always travel together. You can have a lot of one and little of the other. So I’m speaking of simplicity as the result of two forces that are more powerful together than they are individually. It is a love child in the purest sense of the word — a child born of two attributes that want very much to be together 🙂
Morris: You identify ten “elements” of Simplicity and devote a separate chapter to examining each. Which of them do executives seem to have the greatest difficulty mastering?
Segall: “Think Minimal” and “Think Small” are tied for the lead in that measure. As most companies get bigger, they tend to start acting bigger — which was something Steve Jobs made it a point not to do. He held onto the values of a small company, specifically in the way it was organized and the way it conceived and executed ideas. Look around and you’ll see countless companies who are unable to think minimally. You see product lines that are overpopulated, products that are too complicated and messaging that tries to say too many things at once.
Morris: I think the chapter titles you devised are brilliant and each of them is an imperative, set up with the Word “Think.” Please explain what several terms have meant at Apple. First, “brutal.”
Segall: That’s my playful way of suggesting total honesty without regard to whose feelings might get hurt. In this sense, “brutal” means uninhibited. Nothing held back.
Segall: “Iconic” was a way for Apple to create strong impressions without using words. Apple is particularly adept at creating styles, images or personas that come to stand for their products. Like the florescent colors and silhouettes that were used in early iPod ads. Or the characters we came to love in the Mac vs. PC commercials. Or the historical images used in the “think different” campaign. All of these things became icons for Apple’s products or, in the case of “think different,” for the company itself.
Segall: If you love simplicity, you’re frugal with words. Apple carefully chooses its words, and often launches products by using a few select words repeatedly. “Magic and revolutionary” weren’t just words Steve used to unveil the first iPad. They were used in the press release, the website, the TV commercials, the magazine ads, everywhere. It’s a question of finding a simple set of words and using them consistently in all the right places.
Segall: A company should be very careful about taking “no” for an answer. When vendors said that something couldn’t be done, Apple often found a way to get it done anyway. The point is, there are naysayers everywhere you turn. If Apple took all those people at their word, it probably wouldn’t have created half of the products it did. The Apple Store, the most successful retail operation on the planet, wouldn’t even exist if Steve listened to the critics who said it was DOA. If you’re convinced that your idea is a great one, you have to push to turn it into a reality — and oftentimes that means pushing right through those who think negatively.
Segall: Military strategies aim for total victory. To defeat an enemy, it’s not a good idea to use “just enough” force. Overwhelming force is the order of the day. And so it goes in the war against complexity. You don’t want to give complexity an opening, and you don’t want to allow it to grow back once you cut it down. You have to defeat it convincingly.
Morris: By what specific process did the imperative “Think different” evolve?
Segall: That campaign was born of our initial meetings with Steve upon his return to Apple in 1997. Even before TBWA\Chiat\Day was named as Apple’s agency of record, Steve gave us the lay of the land. In our meetings, it was decided that our first order of business was to tell the world what Apple stands for, and to demonstrate that its spirit was still alive. Remember, back then there was serious doubt as to the company’s viability, and the first new products were at least 6-9 months away. Steve was back, but the company had been performing poorly for many years. We not only wanted to inspire Apple’s customers, we wanted to inspire its employees. With “think different,” we tapped into the core belief that had driven the company since the first days in Steve Jobs’ garage. Apple was never about following the pack, it was about blazing a new trail, and doing things better. What I always loved about the words “think different” is that they are completely authentic. They could be applied to the company at any point in its history. When you look at a lot of companies’ brand campaigns, you’ll see that they often try to reinvent themselves, to change their personality into something that might score more points with a certain set of customers. We knew exactly who Apple was, and would always be — all we had to do was find the right words to capture the spirit. Authenticity is one of the most powerful forces in marketing.
Segall: Well, we certainly see a lot of Steve’s relentlessness in Isaacson’s book and I think this very well captures an important part of Steve’s personality. I’d personally never experienced anything like it before, and haven’t since. Steve pushed nonstop because he always wanted to do better, to make something perfect, to give customers the best possible experience. And he did this well beyond the point where others would likely stop. It was often frustrating because you felt like you were being asked to do the impossible, but it was also supremely satisfying. It’s been said that Steve pushed people to do better than they themselves thought possible, and I do believe that’s true. It certainly was true for me.
Morris: What are the most valuable lessons that you learned from Steve Jobs? Please explain.
Segall: When Steve died, I wanted to share my feelings about him on my blog. I thought long and hard because I wanted to that article to accurate reflect my feelings at this very sad time. I realized that Steve taught me one important lesson that could be applied in a great many ways. That was: do the right thing. I’m sure that sounds terribly overused, but that’s exactly what Steve did — and he did it on many levels. He did the right thing when it came to serving his customers. He did the right thing when it came to the quality of his products. He did the right thing when it came to creating an environment in which to sell his products (the Apple Stores). He did all of these things, even if they cost more money, or if they made him less popular to certain segments of the population. From my experiences with other companies, the “right thing” is almost always an obvious choice. It’s just that budgets and politics often get in the way. I respected Steve’s desire to do what is right, and I try to do business that way myself.
Morris: In my review of your book for various Amazon websites, I cite an observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity but would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Do you know if Jobs was aware of the observation and whether or not he agreed with it?
Segall: I don’t know if Steve was aware of this observation, but I’m pretty sure he’d agree with it. In one of Steve’s quotes that I use in the book, he says that Apple’s way of achieving Simplicity in its products is like “peeling away the layers of an onion.” After Apple develops a great product, that’s when the real work begins. They remove layer after layer of complexity until they have reduced the product to its essence. That’s the difference between an ordinary product and one that customers can fall in love with. Comparing this to Holmes’ quote, it’s relatively easy to make things simpler on “this side of complexity” — greatness is achieved in finding the simplicity in more complicated places.
Morris: What about another observation, by Albert Einstein: “Make everything as simple as possible but no simpler”?
Morris: Let’s say that someone builds a monument to the four greatest business innovators, one that is comparable with the Mount Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, South Dakota, sculpted by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum and his son, Lincoln Borglum.
Presumably Steve Jobs would be a unanimous choice. In your opinion, who should be the other three? Please explain your selections.
Segall: I’d start with Thomas Edison, because he’s an obvious choice. He didn’t just invent, he created revolutions. In fact, he was a revolution machine. (As a bonus, he too had personality issues.) Next I’d start carving out the face of Henry Ford. His “assembly line” method of mass production made it possible for people to actually afford automobiles. Last, I’d put Walt Disney up there. He was that rare combination of artist and business person who changed the face of animation and film, inspired creative people and turned creativity into an empire. When you think about it, Steve Jobs actually combined traits from all three of these men. He shared inventiveness with Edison, he manufactured like Ford and revolutionized entertainment like Disney.
Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Insanely Simple and is eager to transform his company’s culture into one within which organizational conversations thrive. Where to begin?
Segall: This is a question I get fairly frequently. For starters, let me say that the reason Apple works the way it works, and succeeds on the level it succeeds, is because its founder refused to let go of his small-company principles. Steve believed that the best way to get big is to act small — staving off all those big-business behaviors in favor of those that foster creativity and invention. Steve didn’t believe creative thinking could thrive in an IBM-like environment. Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that Apple’s success story is not that of a big company that “got religion” and started behaving a different way. It’s the story of a small company that held onto its core values even as it became a global company. So now let’s turn to the question: what can a CEO do to transform his company’s culture into one that celebrates simplicity? If you are the CEO, then half the battle is won already. You have the power to make sweeping changes. I think a CEO needs to study the dynamics of Apple and understand what practices can be translated into their world. One thing they have to understand is that you can’t legislate simplicity. Employees have to embrace it and contribute to it. Somehow a CEO has to rally employees to the cause. Steve Jobs had a great talent for inspiring his people, and the people of Apple are the core of its success.
Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Insanely Simple, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?
Segall: I’d start by emphasizing something I said earlier. It’s important for leaders of small companies to value and protect the type of thinking that made them successful in the first place. When a company grows, that’s when processes are put in place to ensure that success is repeatable. It’s critical that the new processes don’t take the place of old values. One must protect the benefits that come from small groups of smart people, an informal working atmosphere, honest discussion, etc. One thing I saw Steve do more often than anything else was squash big-company behavior before it could take root.
I also think that leaders in small companies need to master the art of minimizing. They should avoid the temptation to let their product lines proliferate simply to provide customers with choice. Apple is far more successful than companies offering a much bigger selection of products. Quality is more important than quantity, and having fewer products allows a company to focus its R&D and marketing resources. And, as an advertising person, I always recommend that marketing be super-focused — a single message presented with clarity.
Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?
Segall: Well, you didn’t ask me what my favorite advertising moment was during my time as Steve’s agency creative director. I’m very proud to have been part of the team that created the first “Think different” commercial, entitled The Crazy Ones. But for sheer fun, I always think of the commercial we ran on the Super Bowl in 1999, featuring HAL, the out-of-control computer from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I grew up as a sci-fi fan, and I always had a special place in my heart for 2001. It was early in mid-1998, when the world was already starting to panic over the dreaded “Y2K” bug that Steve suggested that we should do a commercial about it — because unlike PCs, which threatened to melt down on New Year’s Day in 2000, Macs were engineered smarter than that.