Last week Performance Marketing Insights announced a second keynote speaker for its European conference agenda – that of Ken Segall, Apple’s former Creative Director and firm advocate of ‘simplicity’ in business.

We spoke to Ken about this concept, and didn’t miss the opportunity to gain a glimpse into working with one of the world’s most ubiquitous brands, alongside its creator. 

What can we expect from your highly-anticipated keynote session at Performance Marketing Insights: Europe?

Ken Segall: I talk about simplicity as the most powerful weapon in business. I base my observations on 12 years of experience in Steve Jobs’ world, spanning NeXT and Apple. Though Apple’s stellar success is based on its vision, and its engineering, design and marketing skills - Steve’s love of simplicity was the glue that tied all of these things together. But Apple doesn’t own the concept of simplicity. It’s there for any organisation who wishes to embrace it. So I talk about how Apple succeeded through simplicity, and how other companies can achieve better results by adhering to the same principles.

Onto your career, tell us about the path that led to you becoming creative director for Apple.

KS: The truth is, I could never have planned for my career to evolve as it did. What I did was follow my passion, which is the advice Steve Jobs once gave to the graduating class at Stanford University.

I started out as a rock drummer and lyricist. My interest in words led me to taking a job as an advertising copywriter. My infatuation with technology led me to work on IBM’s computer advertising, which in turn led me to work on Apple’s advertising back when John Sculley was CEO. So when the agency for NeXT was looking for a creative director, they felt that my technology experience would appeal to Steve Jobs. And that worked out pretty well.

The moral of the story is: good things happen when you do what you love.

Apple employed simplicity to achieve great success, as stated in your ‘Insanely Simple’ book on the company. Which specific events and decisions really epitomised the company’s ‘simple’ approach while you were there?

KS: Two early developments demonstrated Steve Jobs’s commitment to simplicity. One was the iMac, which was the first computer that made it easy to get onto the internet. No need to mess around with modems and configurations, like other computers at that time. IMac was the all-in-one, easy way to become an internet citizen. Customers responded to that simplicity by making iMac the single best-selling computer model in history.

The second moment occurred at the iMac introduction. It was there that Steve basically killed Apple’s entire line of over 20 uninspiring products, so Apple could concentrate on making only four world-leading products. This is one of the core ideas of simplicity - doing fewer things better. It set the stage for the many high-quality Apple products to come.

Are there straightforward formulas to eliminating complexity around a company, and which areas would you start with?

KS: A good place to start, as we just discussed, is by looking at how many things the company is trying to do. Doing a few great things is vastly more rewarding than doing a lot of not-so-great things. One should also take a good look at the process by which ideas are conceived and developed inside the company. The idea is to keep the process “small” without too many levels of approvers, and with the participation of the ultimate decision maker from the start.

When the approver only swoops in at the end, it often results in wasted time and frustration. Steve Jobs was present at the initial briefing for every product, and was there at every checkpoint.

Following your criticism of Apple’s naming of the iPhone 4s – a rare stray from the single digits – why do you think that brands, some of whom pledge to something as basic as ‘keep it simple’, feel the need to deviate from a winning formula?

KS: To some degree, we can blame human nature. When we’re paid to be creative, or strategic, or managerial, we often feel a need to demonstrate our value. So, sometimes we change things that don’t really need changing.

Even the simplest companies must wage an ongoing battle against this kind of overthinking. I’m sure there are some logical reasons why Apple believed the “s” was necessary, but when you stand back and look at it as a consumer, it probably raises more questions than it answers. Is the phone really new, or is it just an “off-year” update? This is the challenge for a business leader who believes in simplicity – they should use common sense to kill ideas that open the door to complexity, and reward the kind of thinking that makes things simpler for employees and customers alike.

Putting your creative director’s hat on, is there a technology or trend you think would have radically changed your role had you still been in the hot seat at Apple?

KS: The obvious one is social media. The Facebooks and Twitters of the world really hadn’t taken root when I was working on Apple’s marketing. This change actually thrust a new reality upon marketers - that people are more effectively influenced by friends, families and colleagues than they are by any business entity’s direct appeal. My job would have been very different if social media were a part of our marketing toolkit.

As a side note, I should mention that up to this point, Apple has participated only tangentially in social media, while others have made it a foundational element of their marketing efforts. But this is likely because Apple is already the most talked-about company in technology, and the buzz surrounding Apple grows organically around every product launch.

What was it like to work with Steve Jobs, and is there a side to him that doesn’t get told enough?

KS: I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Steve, and have that front-row seat to his management style.

As you can imagine, there were ups and downs and everything in-between, and Steve’s moods were often hard to predict. However, I do believe his negative side is overplayed in the press, largely because it makes for a more interesting story. My personal experience with Steve was that he was complex, as are we all. Yes, he had outbursts, and he didn’t suffer fools lightly. But if you met with him frequently, you’d also know that he was focused, inspirational, charismatic, deeply committed to building a better world, and he had a great sense of humour, too.

Those who worked with Steve successfully understood that his outbursts were not to be taken personally. That was just the way his passion spilled over. He had a deep commitment to Apple’s goals, and had a talent for getting people to work at a higher level than even they might have thought possible.

Who have been your muses in the world of advertising? Can you point to any campaigns pre-Apple that embodied your core principles?  

KS: The one person who had the greatest influence on the way I think about advertising was Steve Hayden. He was the Creative Director for Apple advertising at agency TBWAChiatDay when I took my first job - in the production department.

Steve was the guy who created Apple’s iconic “1984” commercial, launching the Macintosh in 1984. I refer to him still as my god of copywriting, as he was the master of “intelligent wit”. The tone of voice he created for Apple is still used today. Steve became a friend and mentor as I learned the craft of writing, and ultimately hired me to work on the Apple business in the days of John Sculley. After his time on Apple, Steve shifted his efforts to IBM, ultimately becoming the vice chairman of Ogilvy.

If I were to pick a campaign that embodied my core principles from my pre-Apple life, I’d take BMW. It was built on the simple premise of “the ultimate driving machine”, and every piece of communication remained true to that theme. It demonstrated the power of having one simple idea as the foundation for an ever-growing global campaign. One of my dreams was to work on that business, and I did get that opportunity early in my career. My involvement came some 17 years after the theme line was born, but the ads were still the most memorable ones in the car business. A simple idea is a powerful thing.