Apple Computer may be based in Cupertino, California, but a June 9 Advertising Age report suggests it's living in denial. Instead of developing jaw-droppingly awesome new digital products, "Amid criticisms that it has failed to innovate, Apple is increasingly taking marketing into its own hands."
[Apple is] madly building an internal agency that it's telling recruits will eventually number 1,000 – the size of Grey Advertising. It's pitting [current agency] TBWA/MAL against this internal agency with "jump balls" to mine the best creative ideas, a controversial tactic with outside agencies, let alone an internal one. It's going after some of adland's boldest-faced names to staff its in-house shop -- in some cases, it's even poached executives from TBWA/MAL. And, in what once would have been seen as a sacrilegious breach of the Apple-MAL bond, it's been inviting some of the ad industry's top shops to pitch on major projects.
But Apple's grand ambitions so far appear to be just that.
A long and dishonorable tradition
In firing advertising agencies to solve product problems, Apple joins a long and dishonored tradition.
Like Carnival Cruises, which "solved" shipboard mechanical problems that deprived 4,200 passengers of food, climate control, water and food by firing their advertising agency.
Or General Motors, who fired their ad agency because their ousted Chief Marketing Officer had hired it.
Or JC Penney, who fired theirs because their senior marketing consultant thought it wasn't big enough for him.
It's true that Apple's advertising of late isn't exactly what it used to be. Its early 2013 nuts-and-bolts campaign about arcane product features was a big, confusing yawn. But that was nothing compared to its 2012 Olympics television Genius Bar campaign, which looked down its nose at consumers, drew the hatred of potential customers and the advertising industry alike, got pulled from the air mid-campaign and ultimately caused the creative director in charge of it to quit.
It's a far cry from the funny and effective "Mac vs. PC" campaign that ran in various media from 2006 to 2008 – and even from the 2008 MacBook Air spot comparing its compact dimensions to a manila envelope's and the 2010 iPhone spot showing a grandfather seeing his newborn granddaughter for the first time over Apple's Face Time feature.
So Apple has ramped up its ad spending, from $933 million in 2011 to an even $1 billion in 2012 to $1.1 billion last year.
And they've gone on a shopping spree for creative advertising talent. As Ad Age notes,
since at least the beginning of 2013, Apple has been calling adland's hottest shops to work on various projects. One of those was to San Francisco-based Pereira & O'Dell, which conceived the Emmy- and multiple Cannes-Lion-winning "Beauty Inside" social film for Intel/Toshiba. According to Co-Founder/Chief Creative Officer PJ Pereira, Apple reached out to his agency over the past year for two projects, at least one of which would have been long-term. "We turned them down because we have relationships with both Intel/Toshiba and Skype (owned by Microsoft)," he said. People close to the situation say that Apple continues to call other top creative agencies in on projects.
In April, the brand went on a digital hiring spree and added four shops to its roster: WPP's AKQA, Interpublic's Huge and indie agencies Area 17 and Kettle...The addition of the shops suggests the brand is trying to bring more creativity and innovation to its digital marketing.
To staff its internal agency, Apple is casting its net wide. One senior agency exec noted that within the same six-month period of being contacted by Apple, a number of other senior creative execs at both this person's agency and other shops had gotten calls. The broad outreach gave the impression "they were just dialing numbers." Another upper-level agency exec was unclear as to how many posts Apple has been trying to fill, but said, "All I know is all my talented friends have been approached. Apple has its sight on some of the best talent."
For various reasons, however, top talent has resisted the pitch.
But quantity isn't necessarily quality.
Apple's goal of 1,000 in-house creatives is more than ten times the staffing of Google's Creative Lab, which, according to AdAge, "steers some of the brand's most high-profile work, [and] is said to have fewer than 100 people, not all of whom are full-timers."
Google, incidentally, has replaced Apple as the world's most valuable brand (as measured by revenues and capitalization). But Apple won a different title: Advertising Age's "Most Damaged Big Brand" of 2012.
If Apple's main problem were its advertising, that would be relatively easy to fix – and it wouldn't call for hiring a literal battalion of in-house advertising people, either.
But unfortunately, Apple's main problem isn't in its ads, but in its products.
Apple's latest innovation is (yawn)...
Apple has fallen out of the habit of creating products that people stand in line for days to buy. Their latest introduction – the iPhone 5S and 5C in September, 2013, were met mainly with yawns and later ended up being discounted.
The latest MacBook Air (this year), iPad Air and second generation Mini (November, 2013), Maverick operating system and third generation MacBook Pro (October, 2013), and iOS7 (September, 2013) are all incremental improvements, not the kind of earth-shattering breakthroughs Apple was once famous for.
And if you have blah products, then great creative advertising will more likely hurt than help. In 1965, William Bernbach, the man who did more than probably anyone else to revolutionize advertising, told the Wall Street Journal, "Great advertising can make a bad product fail faster; it gets more people to know it’s bad."
That holds true for mediocre products as well.