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Simplicity with Ken Segall

Get marketing tips from Steve Jobs' ad agency creative director

Top tips

  • Strike a chord with customers to come out on top: marketing is every bit as important as the products and services themselves 
  • Regardless of how complex your product or service is, work to create the perception of simplicity
  • Think quality first. Only accept jobs with companies you believe in

About KenKen Segall

Ken Segall was Steve Jobs’ ad agency creative director for 12 years spanning NeXT and Apple. He led the Think different creative team and set Apple down the i-path by naming the iMac.

In addition to his work with Steve Jobs, Ken has also served as agency global creative director for Intel, Dell, IBM and BMW. With a compelling blend of facts, observations and behind-the-scenes stories about life in Steve Jobs’ world, Ken shows how Steve turned simplicity into Apple’s greatest competitive advantage.

In 2015, do you think it's easier or harder to start your own business opposed to half a century ago?

I’ll give you a trick answer: it’s both easier and harder. It’s easier because there are such amazing tools out there to help start-ups perform at a level previously available only to established companies with serious budgets. Now start-ups have affordable ways to manage their data, marketing, accounting, manufacturing, and so on. And, of course, the Internet has levelled the playing field in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of fifty years ago. The next big idea can literally originate anyplace on earth.

But that level playing field simultaneously makes the challenge more difficult. There are countless start-ups out there, every one of which is passionate about the potential of its idea. Competition is far more intense today, and a new business must battle it out with others to win customers and make them loyal. To come out on top, a company must strike a chord with customers, and that’s the role of marketing. Steve Jobs certainly understood this. In many ways, marketing is every bit as important as the products or services themselves.

You're a big advocate of simplicity, but when you look deeper into successful ideas, businesses or products, they can actually be quite complicated and intricate. How do you reconcile that with the need for simplicity? 

You’re absolutely right that most successful businesses or products have a lot of complexity behind them. I’d go so far as to say that there really isn’t any such thing as simplicity only the perception of it. It’s easy to marvel at the simplicity of an iPhone, for example, but only a few of us could even begin to understand the technology that makes it work. iPhone is very good at creating the perception of simplicity. This is why it’s so very important to design a product experience, and not just a product.

So, every business, regardless of the complexity inherent in its products or services, can benefit by creating this perception of simplicity. Many times, it’s all in the presentation. Even complicated stories can be told in a simpler way.

A lot of talk these days is around the need for failure to succeed. Especially amongst start-ups. Do you have an example of a failure that turned into a success? 

I don’t believe failure is a prerequisite for success but certainly failure can be a great learning experience and inspiration to do better. In that sense, it can be a stepping stone to success. What’s important is the way a company teaches people to think about failure whether it is simply the price of innovation or something that cannot be tolerated. People tend to aim higher when they sense that they have the freedom to fail. When a company’s culture does not tolerate failure, people gravitate toward safer solutions, or innovate in more incremental steps.

Apple has had its failures. Those misadventures are representative of a company that embraces the freedom to fail. Steve Jobs once explained that Apple’s giant cash reserves are the reason Apple can take risks with new products. They have something to fall back on. Many companies don’t have that luxury.

Sometimes a failure is more in the public’s mind than in the product itself. In these cases, turning failure into success is a matter of communicating better, or waiting for the public to catch up to the concept. A couple of years ago, Netflix was heavily criticized for splitting its offerings into two separate products with separate prices: physical discs and streaming. The outrage led many to predict the company’s demise. Now, years later, it’s hard to imagine a more successful company. Netflix understood the trend toward streaming video that the public at large had not yet fully understood.

How did working in an agency setting with a diverse range of clients help you identify qualities of effective and not so effective business stories? 

Above all, I’m very thankful for the fact that I worked with the agencies I did. I had the good fortune to work with some terrifically talented people who helped me understand what was right, what was wrong, and the value of great creative work. And my education wasn’t theoretical I could see it all first-hand while working with a range of clients. I could also see the effect of a company’s culture on the way it develops and executes its marketing plans.

My personal experience led me to believe that business leaders who rely too heavily on metrics and research often miss opportunities to tell stories that truly connect with customers. In contrast, those who have confidence in their own instinct and understanding, are more willing to consider new and interesting approaches that may not be supported by data. They do care about what the numbers have to say, but not in such an absolute way. They trust their own knowledge of human behaviour. Steve Jobs, of course, was this type of leader, and Apple’s marketing over the years speaks for itself.

To sum it up, I’d say that companies led by both head and heart are those that tell the most effective stories. When we talk about emotional impact, we’re not necessarily talking about something that can be proven by numbers.

If you could travel back in time and tell younger Ken a single piece of advice, what would it be?

I love this question! I’d probably tell young Ken not to give up so easily. If he hadn’t gotten nervous about his future as a musician, he’d be playing drums in some famous band about now.

Though I say this somewhat facetiously, there is a nugget of truth here. I do believe that everyone should follow his or her passion, wherever it might lead. There is no perfect life plan, and one must go through different doors as they open. The only guide is what makes you happy. Those who diverge from this simple advice are the ones who end up bored and frustrated.

As an adjunct to this advice, I often tell people what I was told by a wise man in very first advertising job. That is: think quality first. Only accept jobs with companies you believe in, working on quality accounts. The last thing one should think about is money that’s something that happens all by itself once you’ve built up the quality resume.

Can you briefly tell us about your focus for Small Business BIG Marketing, and what attendees can expect to get out of the event?

In working with Steve Jobs as his ad agency creative director for over twelve years, I came to believe that simplicity was the most powerful force in business. It wasn’t just something that came out in his products it was visible in the way he looked at his company’s internal organization, its advertising, its retail presence, its corporate communications, every facet of his business.

So, at the Small Business BIG Marketing event, I’ll be talking about the power of simplicity in the context of what Apple has accomplished. In the course of my presentation, I’ll weave in some behind-the-scenes stories about working in the world of Steve Jobs which was exciting, fun and scary all at the same time. My goal is to demonstrate that any organisation can embrace the principles of simplicity that have driven Apple’s success. These principles are based on common sense, and can be put into action today.