Interview: Ken Segall on why simplicity doesn’t exist and why people love criticising post-Jobs Apple

This wide-ranging interview with Ken Segall covers the insights on simplicity discovered while researching his second book and his concept of ‘dual DNA’ that stops simplicity being the default way of doing business… plus his thoughts on post-Jobs Apple and the rumoured car.

Ken Segall made his name as Steve Jobs’ go-to ad man during the era from ‘Think Different’ to the iMac. He now flies the flag for simplicity in business by writing, speaking and consulting.

Segall’s first book, Insanely Simple, covered his time working for Jobs and the lessons about simplicity instilled from the visionary leader. He also has a new book in the pipeline, also about simplicity in business, this time based on interviews with dozens of CEOs around the world.

This interview was conducted during one of Segall’s visits to Melbourne as part of his work with Bank of Melbourne, which holds events with expert speakers to inspire and educate Victorian businesses.

Marketing: Last time we spoke you were working on the second book. How’s that going?

Ken Segall: Right. It’s been way too long actually. This took me a lot longer than I thought. The first book came out of my head, this one was the result of forty interviews, ranging from an hour to more than an hour, and you get all the transcripts in, you’ve got to pull out the important points and try to assemble them into a story that makes sense. It was a lot more work than I expected it to be.

M: You must have some good insights after speaking to that many people. Who were the sort of people you spoke to?

KS: It’s an interesting mix. I’m very proud of the mix. There’s some famous companies and somewhat famous people, to some start-ups, to some successful companies you wouldn’t have heard of. I actually have a number in Australia, but in the US I have Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, I’ve talked to Jerry, so that was fun. I drove up to Vermont and spent a day with him.

Also – I’m not sure how well known they are here – The Container Store and Whole Foods, which are very big deals in the US. And a little bit from IBM.

In Australia I have Brian Hartzer from Westpac, Scott Tanner from Bank of Melbourne, one of the executive team at Telstra. Then there’s John McGrath, the real estate guy, and Andrew Bassat, of Seek. Some interesting Australians.

Then I have a soft drink company from the Czech Republic and a credit card company from Seoul.

So there’s some interesting, different countries and issues that were facing these companies, and these CEOs took action to simplify, and with great success. The idea of the book is that if your company is getting a bit bogged down, that there is great inspiration to be found in what other people have done successfully. Even though some are big and small and new and old, they all have issues going that may or may not be similar to yours.

Some general principles could be applied to any company, but I think there’s a belief that big companies can’t get simple, and they really can. There are quite a few of those examples in the book. Telstra being one. On the day I was to meet this guy, Robert Nason at Telstra, I had lunch with a friend of mine in Sydney. I told her about the book and that I was meeting with Telstra, and her response was, ‘If you want your book to have any credibility do not include Telstra. I have this long list of grievances with them. I can’t get them to fix anything. They’re the worst.’

It was interesting because I didn’t have to tell [Nason] about that conservation. He basically told me that that’s what the company’s problems had been, and that when he came aboard that’s what he faced. This horrible lack of customer enthusiasm, stock price down, and the company was just really really spiralling. He told me all the things he’s done to try to fix it, and a lot of them are simplification. It makes me feel good when I don’t even use the word, and someone uses it on me. He started talking about the value of simplifying what they do in the customer’s mind, and I didn’t even feed him the word, so it was really good.

Things had just become too complicated for the customers and they weren’t building any advocates because they were making life difficult. Rather than continue with their internal organisational the way it was, they empowered the people who were on the front lines dealing with the customers so that they could feed back directly to management, and they could address issues.

Some of it was very common-sense kind of improvements, which is another thing with the book: common sense is the key to pretty much everything, and it’s just incredible how many companies avoid acting on common sense, because there are always distractions and other concerns.

When I tell people about life in the world of Apple, that was the big difference. Steve Jobs was incredibly good at enforcing common sense, and the same issues would come up there. Steve would just say, ‘No. You find a way to make that work. This is what we’re doing.’ He would never waiver from what the right thing was.

I find too many people in business are way too willing to compromise because of perceived issues that when you run your business the way Steve did, you don’t let those issues deter you. You know what the right thing to do is, and you just do it. Sometimes you put impossible demands on people to do it, which is what he was very good at, but people find ways to make things work. That’s why a guy like Steve Jobs got things done the way he did, and a lot of other companies struggle, I think.

M: Is the idea of an impossible demand being that if even if you don’t achieve the impossible you’re at least going to get somewhere higher than normal?

KS: Actually that was a point Robert Nason made at Telstra. Funny you should mention that. He said that, ‘If you aim for incremental gains, it’s kind of meaningless. People don’t notice incremental gains.’

He talked about Steve Jobs and how he would aim for a wholesale change in a category, or whatever, and that’s what people aimed for. They didn’t aim for making something moderately better, they aimed for total change, and that’s what people notice, I think. If your company’s struggling, if you ramp it up 10% you’re not really going to change anything. Nobody’s really going to notice. You’ve got to do something dramatically different.

M: It’s easy to see the changes from the outside and see they’re common sense. Internally, it’s a hell of a lot of work?

KS: Yeah. Part of the problem is internal structure. That’s another concept in the new book that I haven’t told anyone yet, so this is brand new for you, but it’s the idea that there really is no such thing as simplicity, which is a bizarre thing to say, but what there is is the perception of simplicity.

I think very few things we see in this world that are simple were easy to do. You can start with an iPhone and say it’s easy to operate, but obviously years worth of research and all the stuff inside the phone, we can never understand it.

Even things you look at, like a website, that might be refreshingly simple, people probably agonised over it for months, and there are all kinds of arguments behind the scenes about what should go on what page versus the other.

It takes an awful lot of work to make things look simple, and I think that is the goal. The only thing that’s really important in the end is whether it appears to be simple to the customer. It’s a mistake to assume that’s going to be easy because it’s simple, so it’s all the hard work that goes into it.

One of the examples I use often is the choices you see on webpages for laptop computers, if you look at these different companies. HP has 41 models, and Dell has, I think, like 20-something, 24? Apple has three, but in truth Apple has configurability so that you can create 40 models, but they make it appear simple. I think a company like HP or Dell could benefit from that by saying, for starters, ‘We don’t need X number of body styles. We don’t need 120 of them. Let’s cut it down to five and then let people build what they want out of that.’

M: Choice is stressful.

KS: There’s a lyric in one of Devo’s songs that says something to the effect of, ‘Freedom of choice is what you got, freedom from choice is what you want.’

Nothing is true in extremes – people do need choice, and it’s up to businesses to figure out how much choice they do need – but I think in many instances people do prefer freedom from choice.

These are the little things about human behaviour and human preference that I think a lot of companies just don’t think about, because there is a perception like, ‘We’re selling a lot of this one product, so if we make five other models, we’ll sell even more of them,’ and it’s not necessarily true.

I guess I learned this from Steve Jobs. I hear things like that and I just find it hard to believe them, how many parts are there really on a computer? Why can’t you just say, ‘Here’s a great laptop and you can buy it for the home, or the business, or whatever.’ We’re all human beings and I’m working in my office. I want a cool computer. It makes me feel better about my job.

M: You mentioned Steve Jobs earlier, and the common sense, or the uncommon common sense in business. In terms of leadership, do you think it always needs someone in a really strong leadership position, really determined to make that work in a business?

KS: That’s a question I have heard, and it’s a tough one to answer, because an awful lot of the good things that have happened at Apple were the result of one guy being really strong. It was an interesting thing, because he demanded creativity so when you went to see him, even if you were an engineer, designer, or advertising person, you didn’t want to just give him what he was expecting. You did want to surprise him, but at the same time, you didn’t want to go against the vision, or risk setting him off in some way, because he had that volatile personality.

That’s not the case in every company [but] you do need a champion: someone who’s not going to compromise, and keep everyone focused, and have a sensibility. I think a lot of people don’t have the awareness of the power of simplicity. A lot of people just churn out work and don’t really think about that angle, so that’s the job of management to guide people. You need strong guidance to achieve the benefits of simplicity, because people left to their own devices will screw things up.

I have a new concept brewing too, which is called ‘dual DNA’. I think human beings have this double-sided, double-edged sword, I should say. I think it is in our DNA to prefer simpler things. I think that’s a given. If you have two ways to get to the same place, and one way is more difficult, you choose the simpler ways. Common sense.

At the same time, human beings in the workplace have this amazing ability to make things more complicated, and I think it’s because we all want to contribute, we want to show that we can have an impact, or whatever it is, so the more opinions you have floating around, the more difficult it gets to keep something pure and simple. One of Steve’s strengths was that he kept the work real small, and gave people real responsibility, and didn’t expose ideas to too many opinions. That’s a tough one too, because you may get a good opinion from someone, so who do you listen to, and who don’t you listen to?

M: The culture Steve Jobs instilled, is that still around at Apple from what you can see?

KS: Yeah, I think Steve did a really good job of instilling his values. The executive chain certainly still has his values, and I think as long as those values are there, and everyone’s aware of them, and they guide the company’s actions, the company will be pretty darned great.

It won’t have Steve to guide it. His level of taste was something that was unusual in a CEO, like when it comes to marketing. I don’t think their marketing has been as good since he passed away, but the products themselves, I think, are very consistent, so I think the values are there, and that’s important.

But over 10, 20, 30 years, when enough people come and go, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Apple of the future is very different from the Apple of today. Much as the Walt Disney of today resembles little of Walt Disney’s version of Walt Disney.

M: You’re wearing the Apple Watch, and on your blog there are quite a number of articles about it. Has the reception to Watch surprised you?

KS: To a degree. In fact, there’s an article brewing inside of me, and I haven’t sat down to write it yet, but I’ve noticed even among Apple fans, supporters and shareholders, a great willingness to have a problem with Apple. I don’t know what this is. I think it’s a function of a company’s success.

Taken to its extreme, I have a friend who’s made good money owning Apple stock, and he’s an Apple fan. He has a computer, and phone, and he’s not like a huge techie guy, but he has the products and he owns the stock. When I asked him if he was going to get an Apple Watch, he bristled and he was like, ‘I don’t need that.’ He sort of ranted, and then he actually ended by saying, ‘I hope it fails.’ I’m like, ‘You’re a stockholder, why would you hope that?’

It just made me think. Between all the other people I talked to and him, there seems to be this thing, and I guess it just comes from a company being super successful, that people start thinking that it’s making mistakes now. It’s weird because I don’t think people give Apple enough credit for being incredibly smart. The people who run the company, they’re not going to stumble in some embarrassing way. They’re really really smart, and that’s how they got to where they are.

I think it’s the beginning of a new thing and I’d be very surprised if it failed. I personally find it the height of convenience. Half the time I used to look at my phone. and I don’t have to now. If my wrist is tapping, I know it’s important enough to look. It’s a great filter.

Up until now, notifications have been the big thing. Our phones keep telling us all these things that keep us abreast of things, and now the job of the watch is to filter all that out. People who write apps for the watch, if it’s not delivering really important, good information, it will just frustrate people, and they won’t use it, so the app makers now need to figure out exactly what information are we giving people on their watch.

M: If Apple is working on a car, do you think that fits in with the company?

KS: It’s a difficult thing, talking about the vision of simplicity. I think Apple’s vision is making people’s lives simpler and more wonderful. Giving them the tools to do things and further their personal lives, and their careers, and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think it’s so much about one kind of product. I think they could rationalise a car within the vision of what the company does. Whether they’re actually doing the car, and all the indications are that they are. All these hires and everything. 500 people working in a secret facility and hiring some top Tesla guy, and Tesla’s human resources person. It certainly sounds like a thing.

But cars, I just think, ‘Well, they’ve got $200 billion in the bank, and if they want to, they should look at every possible thing they can do. If they want to pick 500 people and have them work on a car for a year or two and see what they come up with, what’s it going to cost? Two or three billion? Sure, let’s do it.

They’re obligated to look at everything, and they don’t necessarily go ahead and produce everything, [but] I do think they could rationalise that.

One of the criticisms of the watch is that it’s so un-Steve like. There are 18 models, and Steve would have just done one. In fact, somebody wrote an article after that presentation, ‘How Steve Jobs would have introduced the Apple Watch,’ and he had a whole script for it, a whole thing, and it was all about one product. Everybody was going to wear the same watch.

I think that’s really misunderstanding what Apple is about. I think what they do is they tap each product as if it’s a brand new thing that they don’t know anything about. They study it, and one of the most obvious things about watches, if you go to any department store, there are thousands of them.

It is a fashion item, so they decided early on that they’ve got to get fashion people in there. They hired fashion people. Samsung was so thrilled to come up with a watch before Apple, that they did the obvious, they just shrunk the phone down onto the wrist, and made one model and that was it.

I think Apple went ahead and realised it is a very different thing. ‘We can’t just have one thing and everybody will wear it.’ That’s one of the basic decisions about it. The digital crown is different to Samsung. Apple really thought about the size of the screen and how you might want to control it.

That, to me, was a very Apple like product. It was what I love about Apple, that they would attack a category as if they had no idea. This brand new thing, let’s learn about it, and really think about what human beings would respond to.

M: Is the willingness to criticise Apple a post-Jobs thing?

KS: Exactly what I was going to say. I think what it boils down to is Steve isn’t here. I think it shows the power of Steve, but everyone seems to believe, no matter how well Apple does, that Steve is not there, so it can’t really be good. I don’t know if people will ever get over that.

I hate to say it, it gets a little tricky because I think that myself when I look at the advertising. The way they’re creating this stuff, they’re doing more internally now, and they have a lot of teams competing with each other, and that’s just not the way Steve did it.

It was like, ‘Here’s a small group of people I trust. Do some work. If I don’t like it, I’ll tell you, then you do some more work, but it’s your responsibility, and if you can’t do this well, then I’m going to have to fire you.’ He trusted us to do it, and we did it.

I think now it feels more like a big company, like, ‘Well, we’d better look at a lot of options, and here are all the points we want to make’. Steve, even if we were trying to make three points, when he looked at a commercial that maybe did something entirely different, he might say, ‘Oh, wow, I like that better. It doesn’t do what we were saying we’re going to do, but I think more people are going to pay attention to it.’ I don’t think they have the ability to do that now.

I have to be aware of this too. Like the rest of the world, Steve’s behaviour has become sort of a legend in my mind as well, and I’m remembering this creative guy. Chances are if I went back and looked at the video tapes, I would find that he wasn’t as accommodating as I’m remembering, but there were those times. We did have those debates along the way that could not have happened at other companies. He was definitely willing to entertain new ideas.

Peter Roper
BY Peter Roper ON 23 February 2016
Editor of Marketing. Tweets as @pete_arrr.