Ken Segall: The Guy Who Named iMac. Insanely Simple
First of all, Ken Segall, thank you so much for this opportunity. I am honored to share your wisdom with people around the world.
Closely working with Steve Jobs for both NexT and Apple, for over 12 years, Ken Segall is credited for the person who put the “i” in iMac and led the awarded legendary campaign “Think Different”, and is the author of “Insanely Simple”, that is about how simplicity influenced on Apple to innovate and develop. Today, we get a chance to explore the secrets behind the concept of “Insanely Simple”.
-----For those who are not familiar with you. How did you get interested in the advertising industry and why did you actually decide to work for a creative agency?
The funny thing is, when I first went to college, I took an aptitude test that indicated I’d be good at advertising — but I didn’t choose to study that. After college, I pursued a career as a musician. And then, seven years later, I ended up in advertising anyway. I started this career because an old friend (who worked in an ad agency) suggested that I give it a try. So I took a job in the production department of Chiat/Day in Los Angeles, which was Apple’s agency. That’s when I realized there was such a thing as a creative department, and I took night courses to learn the basics of copywriting. After that, I moved to New York and got my first job as a writer. I worked on the Smirnoff Vodka account. A few agencies later, I ended up back in LA working on Apple’s advertising.
-----When you look back, what was the biggest hardship and how did you overcome it?
I always believed I could write. But, in my earliest years in advertising, I didn’t understand what a “concept” was. I tackled each ad one at a time, but I was terrible at developing that core idea that would form the basis of a full campaign. I confessed this deficiency to my boss, and his answer was: “Don’t worry about it. Just keep writing. One day it will all click for you.” And he was right. After a few years in the business, it did all make sense to me. If there is a moral to this story, it’s that some things come with time. You just need to work hard, and absorb everything that’s going on around you. One day it does click.
-----Given your rich professional experience, what is the essence of advertising? What is the advertising?
I’m sure that different people would answer this differently. For me. advertising is the way we make people aware of what it is we have to sell. (Or, in non-profit organizations, how we make people aware of what we do, or try to get them involved.) At its core, advertising is about sending a message. And that’s where it becomes a challenge — because that message has to be simple, clear, compelling and memorable. Too many people think that it's easy, or that they don’t need to study to get good at it. But the truth is, it requires a special combination of creativity and brains.
-----In your book, conference, interview, you keep mentioning the importance of “Simplicity”. Why it is so important that people need to learn?
I think it’s pretty clear that human beings have a built-in preference for simplicity. If we have a choice of accomplishing the same thing in two different ways, and one way is simpler, that’s the direction we choose. Things that are simpler have a basic appeal. And messages that are simpler are more quickly understood and appreciated. Simplicity is an advantage whether you are designing a new product or service, creating an advertising message, or building a better workplace.
-----The common misperception is that complexity is superior to simplicity. Actually, making things simple is far much difficult than making things complicating because it requires profound thinking and deep understanding on what you work on. How people can start thinking in depth in order to reach the level of understanding that they can make things simple?
Although most of us share a preference for simpler things, we’re only human. Inside of an organization, we too often feel compelled to demonstrate how smart and valuable we are, so we offer our opinions and try make changes in things. So, any who wants to understand how to use the power of simplicity needs to understand where simplicity comes from, and how to protect a great idea from the forces of complexity. In general, I find that the best ideas, and the simplest ideas, come from small group of smart people. And, once the idea exists, it needs to be developed and protected. People need to “own” their ideas, and defend them. Being simple is definitely a lot more work that being complicated.
-----In many cases, people do not truly understand the essence of things but simply follow what influencers say. How can you persuade people to believe in your idea?
Again, I think that being simpler is a powerful tool when it comes to persuasion. Before you can get people on your side, you have to communicate your idea in the simplest, most powerful way. Oftentimes, that means saying fewer things in a more memorable way. There is an art to this — figuring out what things you can leave out, and what parts of your message are the most important. The principle here is that the more things you say, the more difficult it is to get people to remember. You can communicate far more powerfully by saying fewer things.
-----What is the most important life lesson you have ever had?
Interestingly, it’s something that happened to me long before I ever got into advertising. It happened while I was a drummer in a rock band. We had just gotten our big break, and got a job playing for two nights in a club where the best bands were being showcased. We could play only one set. So, as we rehearsed, our focus was on playing the songs we thought people wanted to hear most. On the first night, we bombed. People were actually walking out, and by the time we finished, the place was almost empty. Depressing! So the next day, we regrouped. We said, “Well, since they didn’t want to hear that stuff, let’s just play the songs WE like best." Including our original songs, which no one had heard before. The next night was like magic. The crowd stayed all night and gave us thunderous applause. What I learned that night was that if you’re in a creative business, you have to make yourself happy first. People won’t love what you do unless you love what you do.
-----Life is actually far much simpler than people normally imagine. What is your advice to them to shed light on the core essence of their life?
I always talk about business principles, but yes, they can often be applied to life as well. I think it often is a question of prioritizing. Just as communications work best when you say fewer things better, we have limited time in our daily life to do all the things we want to do. There is always the danger that if we try to do everything, we’ll do a mediocre job with all things, instead of an outstanding job on fewer things. The principle is one of “focus.” In business, focus helps you achieve greater profit. in our personal lives, focus helps us do better in the things that make us feel better about ourselves, our families, and our friends.
-----If you have a chance to create an advertisement about Ken Segall, what would be the key message of it?
Now that’s an odd question! To answer it, I’d go back to the first portfolio of work I put together to try to get my first job in advertising. I did some unusual things that seemed to go deeper than most portfolios did. Instead of creating one ad each for a number of different products, I created about 20 ads for one product. My message was: I will work harder than anyone, and I’ll never give up until I get to the best idea. That message seemed to separate me from the many others who were looking for work at the same time, who simply filled their portfolios with a bunch of different ads.
-----If you can make a call to 20-year-old Ken Segall, what kind of advices you would give to him?
This is where I defer to Steve Jobs, who gave such great advice in his now-famous commencement address at Stanford University. When I heard him, I realized that my own career was proof of what he said. Steve said that you can never connect the dots looking forward, and that you can only connect them looking back. Years ago, there was no way I could have planned the path my career took. From drummer to advertising production to copywriter to technology advertising to meeting and working with Steve Jobs. But looking back, it all makes perfect sense. All I did was follow my passion. I went through the doors that appealed to me most, and not the ones that simply offered the most money. When you follow your passion, only good things can follow. It might not happen instantly, but the experience you get will lead you where you want to go. You’ll end up with a career in which you do what you love to do.