Apple’s relationship with its advertising agency, TBWA\Media Arts Lab is one of the most storied partnerships in the history of the industry.
TBWA’s predecessor was the agency behind Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad, and in 1997, TBWA helped save Apple from the brink of bankruptcy with its iconic “Think Different” campaign. Steve Jobs was even close personal friends with Lee Clow, TBWA’s longtime top creative.
But now, it appears the historic bond has loosened. According to The Wall Street Journal, Apple was thinking about firing TBWA as recently as January 2013.
The revelation comes from emails between Apple marketing head Phil Schiller and CEO Tim Cook, made public as part of Apple’s patent dispute with Samsung. Samsung presented the documents as evidence that its phones have become popular due to innovative features rather than copying Apple’s.
According to the WSJ, Schiller sent Cook an email in early 2013 saying that Apple “may need to start a search for a new agency” because “we are not getting what we need from them and haven’t been for a while.”
Schiller’s frustration stemmed from an issue that industry observers have been noticing for several years now: while Samsung was winning over consumers with its “Next Big Thing” ads, highlighting unique new features, Apple’s ads showing off its devices had become stale after years of the same essential formula.
The discussion preceded a campaign from Apple this past summer that attempted to show off the ways people of all kinds use Apple’s mobile products. That campaign, titled “Designed by Apple in Cupertino,” was a flop with consumers.
Another email exchange, detailed here by Business Insider’s Jay Yarow, displays the tense relationship between Schiller and TBWA’s Apple account lead, James Vincent. In it, Schiller emails Vincent a Wall Street Journal story asking “Has Apple Lost Its Cool To Samsung?” along with a note stating “we have a lot of work to do to turn this around.”
The exchange of emails that ensues is decidedly unpleasant, with Vincent suggesting Apple needs to make large-scale changes a la its 1997 turnaround, and Schiller refuting the idea that things are anywhere near as dire these days as they were then.
What’s most fascinating is the glimpse it gives into two sides that were, at least in early 2013, far apart in their proposed cures for Apple’s branding ailments. Where Vincent sees inherent problems with how Apple is doing business, Schiller sees a healthy company the public wrongly perceives as being in decline.
Vincent suggests Apple’s public perception is suffering from innate company qualities and the actions it takes on the public stage, such as its use of Chinese labour, its hoarding of the profits it makes, and the comparatively smaller screens of its smartphones:
Schiller, though, sees things differently, telling Vincent that in fact, Apple is doing much better than the public seems to realise, making the problem a “pure marketing issue.”
“To come back and suggest that Apple needs to think dramatically different about how we are running our company is a shocking response,” Schiller wrote:
In short, TBWA wanted to treat a disease it thought Apple had, while Apple merely wanted TBWA to relieve a public perception headache.
While it’s apparent things between Apple and its agency were not peachy during the early part of last year, the relationship has continued.
Despite Clow’s long friendship with Jobs and TBWA’s history of success on the Apple account, it’s unlikely this relationship would prevent Schiller from doing what he felt was best for the company. As Schiller implied to Vincent in another email, Apple’s board of directors expects nothing less.
“I now have Apple board members asking ‘what is going on with advertising and what are you doing to fix it’. The team is too good to be in this spot,” Schiller told Vincent in an email dated Jan. 31, 2013.
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