Jon Steel [21 NOV 2010 | Storytelling ] I once met Steve Jobs. It was in 1997, just after he had returned to Apple Computer as interim CEO, or iCEO as he liked to call it. He had been brought back to save the company, and one of the changes he thought was needed to accomplish this objective was to change Apple’s advertising agency.
He invited two agencies to meet with him. One was Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, where I was a partner and director of planning. The other was TBWA\Chiat\Day, with whom Jobs had worked before at Apple, creating—among other award-winning work—the now-legendary 1984 commercial. The present situation was strange. We were convinced that Jobs was already committed to Chiat\Day; there was also the not-insignificant problem that Goodby, Silverstein was the agency for a competitor, Hewlett-Packard.
“Don’t worry about that,” Jobs had told Jeff Goodby on the telephone. “I know HP’s chairman. I can fix it.”
We weren’t convinced, but as none of us had ever met the famous Steve Jobs and wanted to, we took the meeting anyhow.
Two senior members of Apple’s marketing department met us in the lobby. They had been hired by the previous regime and inherited by Jobs when he returned. I won’t name them here, but I hope they are both now very happy and living in countries where they will not be able to read this book.
“Steve’s running late,” one of the marketing men said, ushering us into a darkened conference room. “We’ll get you up to speed while we’re waiting.”
We took seats around one of those conference tables made up of four separate tables that never exactly fit together. At one end was a laptop and projector, which our host proceeded to boot up.
He went through the normal conference room audio-visual routine, where the computer worked and the projector did not (“No signal received”), then the projector picked up the signal and he couldn’t find his file. We sat in silence as he accessed his desktop, and watched as he scrolled through what seemed like hundreds of files. Some of them had interesting names like “Cancun ’96.” Others, tagged with strange combinations of numbers and abbreviated jargon, looked like a lot less fun. Finally he alighted on a file and brought up a title on the screen: Agency Briefing.
“I have a few slides,” he said, without a trace of irony.
We were all a little surprised that we were being “briefed.” From Steve Jobs’ original telephone call, we had been prepared fora relatively informal chat. But maybe that would come when Jobs himself fi-nally appeared. Our host had no idea how late he would be; he did tell us, “Steve is very busy.”
As it turned out, he was very, very busy. An hour and a half elapsed, and still there was no sign of him. For all that time, we endured what I can only describe as slow, lingering death by PowerPoint. The coffee did arrive, which gave us some small reason to continue living, but once it was gone no more was forthcoming. Our presenter seemed oblivious to our pain; in the half-light he brought up slide after slide, graph after graph, table after table, each densely packed with numbers and with commentary that he read verbatim. It was a lecture on the computer business and on Apple’s product lineup. Occasionally his colleague would say something like, “If I could build on that,” or “Let me drill down a little deeper,” or “What we really bring to the table is . . .”
The only thing I wanted him to bring to the table was more god-dammed coffee. Unfortunately, all he wanted to do was talk about core competencies, key ]earnings, net-nets, and win-wins, although it seemed to me that if there was any evidence of win-winning in the charts we were see-seeing, it was being done by companies other than Apple. My partners and I all knew before the computer had been switched on that Apple wasn’t doing very well, because it had been well-documented in the press, and Jobs’ return had been hailed as the
hero returning to rescue his ailing company. But the presentation seemed to be designed, if not exactly to hide the problems, at least to designed it difficult to identify them. The two men spoke optimistically of new strategies and paradigms that would enable Apple to “gain traction” once more.
At about the point when most of us were weighing the relative benefits of murder or suicide. the door opened. In came a man wearing jeans and a black polo neck sweater.
“I’m Steve,” he said, although we knew that already. He shook hands with each of us, not acknowledging the fact that we had been waiting for him for almost two hours.
We’ve been briefing them. Steve,” said the senior of the two marketing guys as Jobs finished greeting us.
“I’m sure what they told you was crap.” Jobs said, to us rather than to his two colleagues. Since it was the first time I had met him, I couldn’t be sure, but he didn’t seem to be joking.
“We brought some of our work to show you,” Rich Silverstein said, trying to cut the air that seemed to have become a whole lot heavier. “I’ve seen it,” Jobs said. “I liked some of it.”
Rich looked as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words.
“Okay,” Jobs said, switching off the projector as he strode toward a dry-erase board on the conference room wall. He picked up a marker pen and tapped it in the air as he turned to face us.
“This company,” he said, “is in deep shit. But I believe that if we do some simple things very well, we can save it, and we can grow it. I’ve asked you here today because I need your help. But let me tell you first what I’m going to do. My side of the bargain.”
With the pen he drew 13 or 14 boxes on the board, telling us that each box represented a project into which Apple had invested millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. With the exception of the Newton, which was designed to turn a person’s handwriting into typed text, most of the names were unfamiliar to us. They were names such as Cyberdog, OpenDoc, G4, iMac.
One by one, Jobs struck a line through the boxes. “In the past few days,” he said, “I’ve killed this one, and this one, and this one. . . When he had finished, only two boxes remained.
Turning to face us again, he said, “We’ve got to go back to doing what we do best.” As he paused, I found myself thanking God that he had said in plain English what his now-silent marketing colleagues had attempted to communicate with many charts and mentions of core competencies.
I was no longer thinking about coffee. He was like coffee. The energy in the room was palpable.
“The two projects that remain,” he continued, “are for products we’re calling the G4 and the iMac. They represent what we always wanted this company to be about; they’re technologically superb and visually stunning. And I’m going to bet the future of this company on them.”
All we had seen of the G4 and the iMac were two boxes, roughly drawn in black marker pen on a dry-erase board. But somehow we knew what he was talking about. We felt what he was talking about. We were excited too.
“So that’s what I’m doing. What I’ve done,” he said. “Now what do I want from you?”
Joining us at the table, he told us that, in its communications, Apple needed to say “thank you.” He wanted to thank all the people who had stuck by the company and its products during a time when any sane individual would have predicted that Apple would shortly go out of business.
“We’re an iconoclastic company,” he said. “And these people are just like us. They don’t care about being different. They like being different. I think we should recognize that and celebrate it. Thank them for hanging in with us.”
That was it. Far from asking us to sell our company to him, Steve Jobs had pitched Apple to us. He had explained his strategy for the company in a little less than five minutes, and he told us how he saw the role of communications in not much more than 60 seconds.
The only visual aids he used were produced live using a marker pen and a dry-erase board. Yet they seemed as vivid as any expensively produced slides or blown-up photographs or videos we had ever seen.
In more than 20 years in the advertising business, I have never experienced a more focused, passionate, and inspiring presentation—at least, not in a conference room.
A tell you what,” one of my partners said as we walked to our cars a few minutes later, “He’s brilliant, but he’s an asshole. Did you see the way he treated those two guys?”
“He didn’t want to watch our video,” Silverstein said plaintively.
We all agreed that while Jobs may not have been the warmest, most caring client we had ever encountered, we couldn’t remember the last time we met someone as smart, or as impressive. He had bigger things on his mind than our video, and after all, he had obviously thought enough of us to extend the initial invitation. And he was right about his colleagues’ presentation. It was worthless, and it had appeared so even before Jobs had entered the room to show us all how a briefing should be done.
HP will never let us work for him,” said Colin Probers, our president. He was always the pragmatist. But it was interesting how he said “work for him,” not “work for Apple.”
Jeff Goodby shrugged his shoulders. “I know,” he said. “But the first thing we should do is buy Apple stock.”
Later that day when I checked the stock price it was somewhere around $12 or $13 a share. Within months it was more than five times that. The rest, as they say, is history. Hewlett-Packard executives did indeed have problems with the concept of our working for Apple. Chiat\Day took on the account, which is probably what Jobs wanted anyhow. They relaunched the Apple brand to a doubting public under the line, “Think Different” (I wonder where that came from), and with a 60-second spot that celebrated “The crazy ones. The round pegs in the square holes.” People like Einstein and Picasso, who, the commercial suggested, were united with Apple users in their willingness to stand out from the crowd, to do what others regarded as impossible. It was the celebration, the public thanks, that Jobs had spoken to us about.
Apple today is a very different company from the one we encountered in 1997. It’s no exaggeration to say that the lion’s share of its success is due to Steve Jobs, a man who believed passionately in the future of the company he founded, was able to attract the very best people to help him achieve his vision, and was able to remove any barriers—human or otherwise—that stood in his way. His presentation to us was compelling in every way.
Of course his personality is polarizing. But whatever you think of Steve Jobs the person, it would be impossible to think of him as anything but brilliant. As Bill Bernbach once said. “In this very real world, good doesn’t drive out evil. Evil doesn’t drive out good. But the energetic displaces the passive.”
On which note I should add that the two marketing guys who “briefed” us had left Apple within a week of our meeting, perhaps taking their PowerPoint slides with them.
While those guys presented facts in the dullest way imaginable, Steve Jobs exuded passion and communicated an extraordinary sense of possibility. It was a dramatic juxtaposition: In one conference room, on the same afternoon, talking about the same company, I saw one presentation that has to be one of the worst I have ever witnessed. And I also saw one of the very best.