Apple and its advertising: thoughts on recent developments: Part 2

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There’s been much brouhaha over Apple’s move to create an in-house agency. Ad industry trade portals and tech blogs have written truck loads about it. The common streak of the opinion pieces: Apple has lost its mojo and the ad agency is paying a price. Read Part 1 of my thoughts on this and related issues here. And now on to Part 2 of the post:

Advertising is a shared responsibility. It is said that in advertising, 50% of the credit should go to the client – irrespective of whether the ads have turned out great or not, effective or not. It’s true in Apple’s case too. However, Apple and it’s agency have an advantage. They have great products and an iconic brand to advertise. Not all agencies get to work on such. Most of us have to create preference for everyday, mundane products. They also had a marketing genius like Steve Jobs as client-in-chief. Most of us have…well, brand managers looking to make the most of 2 years at a company, to contend with.

Steve Jobs’ marketing acumen and flair for great, aesthetic, focused creative messaging is legendary. He had a great personal equation with Lee Clow, head honcho and head of creative at TBWA/Chiat/Day. Steve Jobs seems to have played the client-in-chief role and worked with the Clow & agency team as partners – the many successful campaigns being proof. Ken Segall says:

Chiat authored the Mac vs. PC campaign that many (including me) consider to be the best advertising Apple has ever run. With 66 commercials running over four years, this campaign caused endless buzz and helped boost Mac’s market share dramatically.

But it was not a walk in the park working with Apple. Reports and books also suggest Steve was a tough client prone to harsh criticism and changing his mind.

This was his reaction to the first cut of the ‘Think Different’ ads:

“It sucks! I hate it! It’s advertising agency shit! I thought you were going to write something like ‘Dead Poets Society!’ This is crap!”

He was also prone to over reacting:

When Apple was about to reveal the “Bondi Blue” iMac, he berated his good friend and ad partner Lee Clow over the phone. Jobs said Clow’s team was getting the colour wrong for the print ads. He shouted, “You guys don’t know what you’re doing. I’m going to get someone else to do the ads because this is fu#$d up.”

Over all those years, I am sure both the agency & client have made mistakes, taken a fair share of wrong strategic & creative decisions. But the agency didn’t get sacked over the first mistake they made. Or at least the client’s unhappiness over the agency wasn’t out in the open. We’ve got to know about Phil Schiller’s (now client-in-chief I guess) unhappiness over the agency output thanks to the patent trial with Samsung. We don’t know any more details about day-to-day interactions other than the documents & emails shared as part of the trial. What seems to have riled Schiller the most is the fact that the agency compared Apple in 2013 to Apple in 1997. The reason for this perception from the agency partner is quite apparent.

Recently, ‘Apple is doomed and Samsung is winning’ narrative has gained traction. Apple is perceived to be playing catching up on many fronts and the ‘nothing new’, ‘nothing game changing’ has been repeated as a mantra. It is like how a sound byte is picked up by one news channel and then repeated on loop across many channels. A viewer then sees it on TV, then across online portals, social media channels, comment section of articles and print media for days on end. Naturally, sound bytes are then embedded deep within us and we internalise them. Samsung has engineered and exploited the situation masterfully over the years, backed by product launches and fuelling the fire in media. I have seen many tech savvy friends rubbishing Apple products as over priced and paying extra for show value, Steve Jobs tax etc. Fact is, 7 years is a long time in the tech world. Between 2007 (the year of iPhone launch) and now a lot has changed. There are many aspiration brands So when the agency sent out a missive comparing Apple’s current status to what it was in the 90s, it must have riled the client no end.

My point is that operational gaffes, failed ads or campaigns client dissatisfaction over a single ad campaign – are all common in agency-client relationships. Mature clients who understand the need to treat their agency as a long term business partner don’t let such ups & downs affect the agency relationship, change agencies every year or simply keep them on tenterhooks by threatening to sack them every six months. By all accounts, Apple is a mature client.

I think things go wrong when the agency doesn’t get it at a strategic level or agency and client don’t work hard enough in establishing a relationship at the top levels. When Phil Schiller sent out an email to Tim Cook saying “we may need to start a search for a new agency … we are not getting what we need from [Chiat] and haven’t been for a while” it cues discontent beyond just unhappiness over a campaign or two. Only the two hands-on teams will know the details, we can only speculate.

But when this happens, it speaks of a larger problem: TBWA\Media Arts Lab was presenting fresh work to its signature client when the Apple executive across the table stopped the proceedings and handed over another idea, saying simply, “We like this better.” Ouch.

But even in the best of client-agency relationships, where the client is like a partner, he is a senior partner. He pays the bills, decides what gets to see light of day. To quote Ken Segall again, ‘Apple will get the advertising it deserves’. 

Single client agencies – there are pros and cons – making it work depends on a lot of factors. The traditional view has been that in-house agency is a bad idea as it won’t attract great talent. Reason: ad agency folks thrive on the challenges of a multi-brand diverse portfolio and working on a single brand will get them bored, jaded. There is some truth in that. The charm of thinking through a business problem of a deodorant brand one moment and a life insurance brand the other, is attractive. But then, working on a cool brand like Google or Apple and having to think through creative solutions for a diverse set of products within the ambit of that single brand can also be an interesting challenge. Of late, agency holding companies have created dedicated teams for big advertisers, operating pretty much on the same principle. While the team members may be experts across many disciplines (strategy, media, digital creative, tech etc.). I don’t fully agree to the view that working on a brand like Apple and Apple alone can be restrictive. I am sure the best of creatives will give anything to work on such a brand.

Cool quotient is subjective. There is an orchestrated campaign in online media to rubbish Apple. Simple reason: page views. Everyone loves to see an icon fall from a pedestal and there is a vicarious pleasure in seeing Apple falter. So sensational headlines about Apple, especially negative ones get millions of page views. Many have made a career writing such. Sure, Apple makes mistakes and is not infallible. But declaring Apple has lost its cool that too based on some survey is just being sensational. Fact is, the brand has an appeal among a niche audience and never aimed to appeal to all. There will always be brands which have a wider appeal and affinity. Such brands are equally cool among their audience. Samsung, Sony, Micromax have all their fans.

Comparisons are odious. Ideas like ‘Think Different’ happen once in a lifetime. Successful sequels are not easy to come by – ask Hollywood. So to keep harping on 1984, Think Different, Mac vs PC and lamenting that ‘Made in California’ is not of the same class is not right. Ditto from the product perspective – the clamour for Apple to launch something game changing has been on for years now. Tech pundits keep asking, ‘where is the new wow product?’ as if it is child’s play to create one.

By the way, this is not the first time that Apple has gone outside of its lead agency for creative work. There has been internal team of hundreds of creatives. They also work with digital shops like Level Studio (the agency lists Apple as its only client).

So to reiterate my points over the two posts:

– TBWA has made a stellar contribution to the Apple brand. Yes, unfortunately advertising is a business where past laurels do not count. But to conclude that ‘Apple’s products don’t sell because of the ads; they sell because they’re great products’ is just wrong

– Steve Jobs or not, Apple remains consistent in it’s advertising

– Advertising is a shared responsibility

– There are pros & cons to a single-client, in-house agency; recent experiments show that it is possible to make it work

– Cool quotient of a brand is subjective. Anyway, it is just a matter of few months before the tech world starts singing paeans about Apple given its plans for new products. Apple hasn’t lost its sheen as some claim; it serves the tech media to claim so as it is good for business

– Great, game changing campaigns (like products) don’t happen every six months. So cut the ad agencies some slack.

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