January 30, 2013

Apple, Jobs, and Creativity

A week after Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple, but before his sad death, I wrote the following about the media reaction to his leaving...
"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."
Eighteen months later, the strength of Apple as a consumer products juggernaut is being called into question. Although their sales are still astronomical, their growth has slowed and their stock price has dropped substantially -- about 1/3 in the last 4 months. They are no longer the world's most valuable company.

In the months since Jobs' death, Apple has done very little to reassure us that it is still the same company that startled us with beautiful, imaginative products. This came to mind the other day when I saw a tweet from the great Dave Trott quoting Bill Bernbach:
"It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we're legally allowed to take over our competitors."
Apple has clearly not shown the same type of creativity in the past 18 months that it did in previous years.

As I said at the time...
"...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."
Advertising did turn out to be the first indicator. Luckluster ad efforts for "Siri" and a campaign featuring a "Genius" did not live up to the high standards of intelligent, thoughtful advertising Apple had established.

But more important, there have been no significant product breakthroughs. We had gotten used to Apple amazing us with new products and features every six months. But in the past 18 months all we've seen from them is incrementalism -- smaller iPads, larger iPhones. Just the kind of stuff we're used to seeing from the followers in the industry, not the leader.

Meanwhile Samsung has grabbed the cool factor from them with products, features and advertising that are very attractive to young people (yes, there are categories in which it pays to target young people.)

I am not ready to be worried about Apple. I expect they will be back before long with a breakthrough idea or two.

But as Bernbach said, the future is about one thing -- Apple has to demonstrate that they can be as creative without Steve Jobs as they were with him.

So far, they haven't.


Chris S. said...

I think it's a question of whether Steve's legacy can be even a shadow to the catalyst that he himself was. In the grand scheme, anyway.

I would point out that Apple did not come up with most of the things they made ubiquitous – music players, tablet computing and smart phones.

Apple didn't invent the products, they invented markets for them.

The Ipod needed ITunes and the accompanying content (pardon the use of that term) to take off. The iPad and iPhone needed the well-rounded and tightly quality-controlled App Store.

Lately, the focus seems more on products. We'll see if Apple TV turns out to be anything worth crowing about. They've been tinkering on it for years – and I'm not talking about the set-top box. I'm talking about the device and the Apple-created market that goes with it.

Ciaran said...

I'm not used to disagreeing with you, but I guess I can make an exception.

On the ad front, you're right, "Genius" was horrible. But I think the iPad mini ads show that their 'intelligent, thoughtful advertising' is still around.

"Piano" is such a great little ad, and "I'll Be Home" is a heartstring-puller that still gets to the heart of the product.

But in terms of getting their groove back, I think "Bounce" is so much damn fun!

Just to be boring, I'll take issue with your timeline of Apple breakthroughs too.

2001 - iPod
2007 - iPhone
2010 - iPad

There's not a six month interval to be seen in there, unless you start playing silly buggers with the MacBook Air launch (7 months after iPhone). Let's give them another year before we start fretting about breakthroughs - even if Apple invented a time machine, critics "would complain it wasn't fast enough".

Anonymous said...

You're usually on-point, TAC, but this post leaves me a little cold. As someone who so clearly values evidence-backed conclusions, I thought you of all people wouldn't fall prey to the historical revisionism that has plagued Apple analysis ever since Jobs died.

For one thing, the idea that under Jobs, Apple introduced ground-breaking products "every 6 months" isn't true. There were several years between, for example, the first iPod and the first iPhone -- years when the iPod was subject to mere "incrementalism". Indeed, this was Apple's modus operandi under Jobs, and one that continues today: they innovate in a category and then spend years building upon and refining that innovation. Another thing to keep in mind: Jobs was almost certainly involved in the development of most or all of Apple's current product lineup, since they are planned and designed years in advance.

(As a side note, I'd bet every cent I have that many of the same pundits who now long for the Jobs days of innovation were the ones decrying the unveiling of the iPad as "just a big iPhone" and the thing that would surely doom Apple for good.)

As for the ads, certainly the Genius ads are clunkers. But the latest spots for the iPhone 5 voiced by Jeff Daniels have gotten some pretty positive reactions -- including those from Ken Segall, the veteran ad man who worked directly with Jobs for years.

I won't pretend to understand the whims of the stock market. But it seems to me that when the second largest company in the world is making record profits and selling more iPhones than Samsung sells S3s and Notes (combined!) it's a safe bet that that company is still doing something right.

treb said...

Very useful, insightful, thanks

Heather Physioc said...

Completely agree that Apple is not currently behaving as the imaginative company they have been and are supposed to be - just releasing incremental new versions of their existing products. They're going to need to re-imagine another sector or invent something to fill a new need. I still think they have it in them, and even if they don't and sacrifice that "leader" for "follower," they still produce top-of-the-line household name products I think people will continue to have top-of-mind and turn to first for a while. But the competition gap is narrowing and other companies will catch up fast, so they really can't afford to let their guard down.

Anonymous said...

"Every 6 months"?

Look at the timeframe: iPod 2001, iPhone 2007, iPad 2010.

Apple spent six years between the first iPod and first iPhone.

AND... Why is it only Apple that’s expected to invent a time machine? http://blogs.hbr.org/pallotta/2013/01/the-market-wants-apple-to-unve.html

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