steve jobs

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A post recently showed up in my LinkedIn feed.  It was a video showing a talk by Steve Jobs and claiming to be the “best marketing video ever”.  I disagree.  I think it is the worst ever.  I hate it.  I wish it would go away.  I have deep respect for Jobs, but on this one, he ruined everything and we’re still dealing with the damage.

A little context:  In the 1990’s, Apple was in its “beige box” era.  I was actively involved in desktop support for Macs at the time.  Most of my clients were advertising agencies, and one of them was TBWA Chiat Day, which had recently been hired by Apple.  Macs, once a brilliant product line, had languished, and had an out-of-date operating system.  The GUI was no longer unique to them as Microsoft had unleashed Windows 95.  Apple was dying, and there were even rumors Microsoft had acquired it.

In came Steve Jobs.  Jobs was what every technology company needs–a visionary.  Apple was afflicted with corporatism, and Jobs was going to have none of it.

One of his most famous moves was working with Chiat Day to create the “Think Different” ad campaign.  When it came out, I hated it immediately.  First, there was the cheap grammatical trick to get attention.  “Think” is a verb, so it’s modified by an adverb (“differently”).  By using poor grammar, Apple got press beyond their purchased ad runs.  Newspapers devoted whole articles to whether Apple was teaching children bad grammar.

The ads featured various geniuses like Albert Einstein and Gandhi and proclaimed various trite sentiments about “misfits” and “round pegs in square holes”.  But the ads said nothing about technology at all.

If you watch the video you can see Jobs’ logic here.  He said that ad campaigns should not be about product but about “values”.  The ads need to say something about “who we are”.

I certainly knew who Chiat Day was since I worked there.  I can tell you that the advertising copywriters who think up pabulum like “Think Different” couldn’t  write technical ads because they could barely turn on their computers without me.  They had zero technological knowledge or capability.  They were creating “vision” and “values” about something they didn’t understand, so they did it cheaply with recycled images of dead celebrities.

Unfortunately, the tech industry seems to have forgotten something.  Jobs didn’t just create this “brilliant” ad campaign with Chiat Day.  He dramatically improved the product.  He got Mac off the dated OS it was running and introduced OS X.  He simplified the product line.  He killed the Apple clone market.  He developed new chips like the G3.  He made the computers look cool.  He turned Macs from a dying product into a really good computing platform.

Many tech companies think they can just do the vision thing without the product.  And so they release stupid ad campaigns with hired actors talking about “connecting all of humanity” or whatever their ad agency can come up with.  They push their inane “values” and “mission” down the throats of employees.  But they never fix their products.  They ship the same crappy products they always shipped but with fancy advertising on top.

The thing about Steve Jobs is that everybody admires his worst characteristics and forgets his best.  Some leaders and execs act like complete jerks because Steve Jobs was reputed to be a complete jerk.  They focus on “values” and slick ad campaigns, thinking Jobs succeeded because of these things.  Instead, he succeeded in spite of them.  At the end of the day, Apple was all about the product and they made brilliant products.

The problem with modern corporatism is the army of non-specialized business types who rule over everything.  They don’t understand the products, they don’t understand those who use them, they don’t understand technology, but…Steve Jobs!  So, they create strategy, mission, values, meaningless and inspiring but insipid ad campaigns, and they don’t build good products.  And then they send old Jobs videos around on LinkedIn to make the problem worse.