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How Brands Can Build A Disruptive Campaign


Building A Disruptive Advertising Campaign

Rarely do you hear someone who can confirm the important truths that you’ve spent a career learning. It takes someone who has been to the mountaintop to validate what you’ve believed to be true all along. For all of us at The Un-Conference: Brand Leadership in an Age of Disruption that someone was Rob Siltanen, the creative director and copywriter behind one of the most iconic ad campaigns in history. Siltanen’s presentation was entitled “Building a Disruptive Campaign” and was based on his work from nearly 20 years ago for the then struggling Apple computer brand and the campaign he directed called “Think Different.” If you’ve read the accounts or have seen the movies since Steve Jobs’ death, chances are you are more likely to hear Lee Clow’s name mentioned (Rob’s former boss at Chiat/Day), but no matter – they both pitched the business. You may have even believed that Jobs created the campaign (an urban legend … he originally hated it before later embracing it). But as happens so often, there’s more to the story.

But this is not so much a re-telling of Siltanan’s account of the campaign as much as it is a distillation of some of the wisdom that is wrapped around creating it. There is much that we can learn or can have affirmed as fellow marketers with this recollection, no matter what we are marketing or for whom. Naturally, the genesis and execution of “Think Different” provides significant weight and drama, given the reverence for Steve Jobs, the Apple brand, and the admiration of the agency Chiat/Day. It really was a high stakes encounter when Clow and Siltanen sat down with Jobs after his return to Apple in 1997. But then again, all of us face similar situations that have the same relative importance in our own careers and for our own clients. That’s the value to us of hearing the experience from the one who was there.

The following highlights of Siltanen’s “Think Different” experience will help all marketers build a disruptive campaign.

The Idea Is Everything. “Think Different” was the quintessential disruptively big idea. However, in the years since, the reverence for “the idea” has waned with other advertisers and marketers. The advancement of technology with digital media capabilities and such has tended to crowd out the search for the big idea in favor of the newest media fad. As Siltanen reminds us, it’s the idea that pulls the media wagon, not the other way around.

Even Smart Clients Will Sometimes Think Tactically. As brilliant as Steve Jobs was, and as desperate as Apple’s situation was (market share at the time was just over a paltry 3%), Siltanen was surprised at just how short-sighted and tactical Jobs was in his meeting with the agency. “Just develop some trade ads” was his client’s original input. Today we’re surprised, given the ultimate success of Apple’s relaunch, that Jobs hadn’t thought more strategically with his marketing vision. Siltanen, on the other hand, saw an opportunity for the brand to disrupt the personal computing marketplace for all time by encouraging his client beyond doing just “some trade ads.”

It Can Be Smart To Tell Clients That They Are Wrong. As Siltanen relays the story, the agency was in a very strong position at the time and wanted nothing to do with getting caught up in a pitch war for the Apple brand relaunch. Emboldened by this position, Rob had no reservations in setting Jobs straight on the fallacy of giving tactical direction. And it worked. Jobs was intrigued and Chiat/Day seized the initiative by ultimately producing one of the top launch campaigns in history. Had Siltanen not spoken up and not stayed the course the creative would have been just another computer campaign … if produced at all. The lesson here is that you have no hope of winning if you don’t fight for the work. Or as Siltanen observed, if campaigns don’t work and produce results, everyone loses their jobs anyway. So you might as well improve the odds of success with a great idea. Who could argue with that logic?

Great Ideas Can Emerge From Brief But Essential Information. If you’re looking for an exhaustive creative brief and reams of research in the “Think Different” case study, don’t bother, because it evidently didn’t exist. The client gave the agency very little to go on but the essentials were familiar to the agency, such as the correct assessment of the marketplace situation, the campaign objective to launch a new product line, etc. In this case, that’s all that was needed to get the job done. But this raises the question: How often do we as marketers fail to agree upon even the most essential information in formulating a strategy? Many campaigns actually fail in the planning stages long before they are ever launched, simply because there is no clarity or consensus regarding even the most fundamental direction.

Advertising Still Has An Important Role To Play. Granted, the world has changed over the last 20 years. And that’s especially true in marketing. The role and value of advertising has been the subject of debate among brand marketers, in part because it has been handled so ineffectively (see the previous “the idea is everything” paragraph). In 1997, Facebook was not yet born. Cell phones hadn’t become “smart.” There was no YouTube (as Rob lamented to run a 2+ minute length “Here’s to the crazy ones” video version). And even radio was still holding its own as an advertising medium. Nowadays there are many more media options to reach an ever-increasingly fragmented audience than there were then. Yet, real disruption can still be effectively waged when advertising is used well.

“The Medium Is Not The Message. The Message Is The Message” according to Siltanen. This is in reference to Marshall McLuhan’s idea first introduced in 1964 that the medium “embeds” itself in the message and becomes part of it, thus “the medium is the message” philosophy. In many respects, this is true – the way we receive information says a lot about the information itself. But this mindset can put “the medium” in the driver’s seat, making “the message” a mere passenger in terms of marketing communication importance. Siltanen argues conversely that the “message is the message” and should be uninfluenced by media choice. And in the hands of the marketing strategist, one can choose the appropriate and most effective delivery vehicle for the message. Therefore, as marketers, we must resist the temptation to think of the latest media fad like a magic bullet. The Message is first. The Medium is second.

Rob Siltanen’s Formula For A Successful Campaign

  • Crystallize the mission.
  • Get the message right. The medium is not the message. The message is the message.
  • Understand the power of visuals.
  • Sell the idea through the system.
  • Understand the strengths and weaknesses of every medium you work with and how different media interact with others. No single medium has all the answers.

The challenges posed by Siltanen’s account of the “Think Different” campaign for us as brand marketers are these:

  • Are we willing to be disruptive marketers ourselves?
  • Are we willing to not settle for anything less than the big idea?
  • Are we willing to challenge ourselves and our clients, and fight for our ideas by selling them all the way through the system?
  • Are we ourselves willing to “Think Different?”

Twenty years after his work with Apple, Rob Siltanen heads his own Los Angeles based ad agency Siltanen and Partners.

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