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Apple's Advertising Problems May Not Be With Its Ad Agency

Apple's new spots, done in house, are beautiful, but generic

Apple’s new spots, done in house, are beautiful, garner good reviews, but lack the point of view Apple has always been known for.

Unthinkable. Apple fire TBWA/Media Arts Lab, the agency that Steve Jobs asked Lee Clow to form in order to concentrate on Apple? Well if you read the recent press reports, it appears possible. The momentum to move efforts in-house grows. Apple is bringing on new digital agencies. And internal emails, recently made public, reveal increasing tensions.

According to Bloomberg, which interviewed me for this story, the rift widens. After the Wall Street Journal headlined an article with “Apple losing it’s cool to Samsung,” Apple Marketing Chief Phil Schiller ripped the agency in an email. TBWA Media Arts President James Vincent replied that perhaps “Apple needed to make radical changes to the way it did business,” and compared the current stasis to 1997 when Apple had an abysmal product offering and nothing in the pipeline. That sent Schiller over the edge.  

Oh well, another day in the life of a client agency relationship.

But let’s cut to the chase. Apple has lost its edge. At least its advertising edge. And it’s for one reason. There’s no enemy anymore. Apple advertising has been great since 1981 because there’s always been someone or something to challenge and confront.

Thirty-three years ago it was IBM. Even before 1984 put the agency and the client on the map with the all time greatest TV commercial ever, there was the brilliant and ballsy “Welcome IBM. Seriously.” Apple declared that it was increasing social capital by enhancing individual productivity. Big Blue stood for centralized, institutional control. IBM was entering the PC business and Apple made them look late to the party and less than committed to the “movement.”

Six years after 1984 — no need to dwell on that — “What’s on your Powerbook” took on the enemy of physical confinement. Most of us were still tethered to a desk, if not the central server. Here was something we could carry around with us and use to achieve total freedom.

In 1997, Think Different took on conformity and mediocrity. Now there were two rivals worth confronting. You had a choice. You could embrace boredom and ordinary. Or join the crazy ones who not only believed they could change the world but who actually did.

In 2001, the iPod dancing campaign, while appearing to celebrate music, actually challenged another authority: the music industry and being held captive. Apple freed us from radio stations, albums and stereo systems.

That, of course, was followed up by the campaign of the decade. Get a Mac. The enemy wasn’t simply Microsoft, it was complexity, complications, and incompatibility.

For three decades, Apple was the disruptor, the challenger, the instigator. It had an enemy that could be easily defined and portrayed. It had magical new products that delighted us with capabilities we’d never seen before. It had clear brand archetypes –it was the outlaw in its advertising and the magician in its products — both personified by Steve Jobs. And it had a great ad agency.

It still has the ad agency. Maybe it should be working on fixing some other problems.

(Note: Tim Cook + Angela Ahrendts + Dr. Dre ≠ Steve Jobs)


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