After Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple last week, speculation about the company's future began immediately.
The consensus seemed to be that Jobs built a strong culture, hired smart people, and taught a way of thinking that will serve Apple well in the future. The story line went like this-- while Jobs will be missed, he is no longer essential to the future of the company and it will go on brilliantly without him.
I don't buy this for a second. Genius is non-transferable.
Jobs hasn't just created better computers, he has created a world that nobody else could envision. He brought an artist's sensibility to a field previously populated by capable but tone-deaf engineers. He didn't just make beautiful looking hardware, he took what was a dead screen full of little green letters on a blue background and turned it into an astounding, enchanting world of graphics, music, and video that has become a central feature of contemporary life.
He has made work more fun, knowledge more available, and entertainment more rewarding.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of buying an Apple product knows the great aesthetic delight of turning it on for the first time and seeing the beauty that ensues. Even going to an Apple store is a completely unique and strangely arresting experience.
On Friday, Apple became the world's largest company, surpassing ExxonMobil in market value. It will not simply evaporate. The most likely scenario is that Apple will continue to shine for a few years while the initiatives that Jobs started are still in the pipeline, and then slowly the company's radiance will start to dim. They will be successful and will continue to produce excellent products for a long time -- but the startling brilliance will slowly fade.
Many successful creative enterprises turn out to be the extended shadow of one individual. My best guess is that Apple is such an enterprise.
Interestingly, one of the first indications of whether Apple is capable of continuing its explosion of creative energy without Jobs at the helm may be found in its advertising. The product pipeline will take years to screw up. But the ad pipeline can be screwed up in no time.
About a year from now, with Jobs in the background, the knuckleheads at Apple (there are knuckleheads everywhere) will have a chance to get their sweaty hands on the advertising.
Jobs is a brilliant technology visionary. But let's not forget that he is also the best ad man of his generation. He is what you might call a "classicist." Apple advertising is simple. It is almost always product-focused (the product usually sits smack dab in the middle of a white page.) The TV spots for the iPad and iPhone are usually nothing more than simple but compelling product demonstrations.
Here are some clues to look for in Apple's advertising that will indicate that dull hands are grabbing at the wheel:
1. Creeping Brandism: The Apple brand was built bottom-up. That is, the products defined the brand. Virtually every Apple ad was about a product, not the brand (okay, there was "Think Different" but that didn't last.) Keep an eye out for the erosion of this discipline.
2. Agency change: Vapid marketing people relegated to the background all these years by Jobs' dominance may suddenly start flexing. They wouldn't dare contradict Jobs' legacy, but they could accomplish the same thing by undermining the agency.
3. The Tortured Logic of Account Planning: Look for ads about you the consumer instead of Apple products. Look for moronic online "engagement" gimmicks. Or look for social media pandering.
4. Complications: Part of the brilliance of Apple advertising has been its simplicity. Keep an eye out for complicated ideas or ads with more than one product.
5. Media: Apple has used online media sparingly. The preponderance of its advertising has been conducted in traditional media -- TV, print, and outdoor. Watch to see if Apple suddenly starts going all trendy and new age in its media choices.
If you start seeing any of these signs coming out of Cupertino, sell your shares.
Advertising will be an early indicator of whether people without vision and taste are moving in at Apple. It will be interesting to watch.
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More on this topic here.