Steve Jobs: The movie and the man

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Steve Jobs: The movie and the man

Steve Jobs. Love him or hate him, I wonder how many of us have shared a pizza with him. I did, on quite a few occasions between 1983 and 1985, in what now seems like another world, another life. In some ways it was a different world. It was American white heat before American Hot became a pizza. It was the world before Steve made it the world we know now. And it could so easily have been different, because it almost didn’t happen.

In early ’83, I was “tapped” by Chiat/Day, a highly creative US West Coast advertising agency who were working with most of the “Silicon Valley” companies, in that era when the term was first coined. As a young account planner working for a cool London agency on great British brands in advertising’s heyday, this was not an obvious career move. Intel, before it was “inside”, did not have the same appeal as “Hello Tosh. Got a Toshiba?” Apple, however, did have a ring to it, and that was the ring I followed.

I worked with a small group of people on the team developing and launching the Macintosh from skunk works in Palo Alto. This was the most important launch in Apple’s short history. Previously the Apple II and latterly the Lisa had been sold and marketed to education, small business and computing enthusiasts. The “Mac” was freighted with Steve’s passion and conviction for liberating computing power from the “mainframe” to the many, and with his vision of creating the “personal computer”. Like all good disrupters he had an enemy and that enemy was the white-shirted monopolist, IBM. Steve also instinctively understood the power and importance of communication. We met late and often.

We’re all familiar with the bonding chemistry of that kind of project: a shared vision with a big prize and a hard deadline. All else falls away. Add Steve Jobs into that mix and the experience is uniquely formative.

So it was emotional for me to finally see the Steve Jobs film recently. It’s cleverly directed by Danny Boyle, telling the story through three iconic product launches (my ears are still ringing from the first one) and the developing relationship with his “is she or isn’t she” daughter, Lisa. The narrative arc of the story is true, though some incidents are telescoped. The script is Aaron Sorkin’s classic Shakespearian mix of soliloquy and banter. There are great performances of course, though Fassbender doesn’t resemble Jobs, but I’m not sure they are all great portrayals.

Mostly, I think Steve was a “hot” person, not a “cold” person. Fassbender portrays him as cool, cruel, ultra-rational, calculating and unsmiling — a character who might have been created by Bret Easton Ellis, had he set his novels in Silicon Valley. Jobs could be all of those things of course, but behaviourally he was much more “hot” than “cold”: rash, quick, unguarded, passionate, kinetic and talkative. He spoke quickly, gesticulating madly, repeating mantras. The moments of “violent agreement” were just as intense as those of humiliating confrontation. He often broke into a grin, thumped the table, or jumped up and down. Maybe he changed later on, after my time, but the Steve Jobs I remember was not this chilly robot.

Also, John Sculley is portrayed rather more heroically than I remember him. Sculley was the supremo CEO from Pepsi, winner of the cola wars, who was hired just prior to the Mac launch to help Steve run the company. Steve personally tempted him away with the admonition “do you want to sell flavoured water all your life or do you want to change the world?” While Jeff Daniels’ “hands in pockets” mannerism is spot on, I remember Sculley as slighter, less of a “captain of industry” type and ironically more cold than Jobs. I was intrigued by this version of him, but I don’t think he was as either as wise as the film suggests or as Machiavellian as his legacy portrays.

Kate Winslet gives a great performance as Joanna Hoffman, who was really Steve’s chief of staff and who has all the best lines in the film. There were other important women in the Apple story too, and I hope someone will in time give them their place.

Most strange for me was to see that the narrative pivot of the movie was a gathering that I actually attended. This was the legendary meeting, referred to but not shown in the film, in which Steve and a few of us from the ad agency passionately defended the powerful launch commercial to a hostile and sceptical Apple Board, who had been convinced by quantitative market research that people would be horrified by it.

Here’s that story.

We had already prepared an elegant introductory TV campaign for the launch, which featured simple close-up demonstrations of the Macintosh product on a plain tabletop. Each commercial was beautifully under-written so as to contrast with the amazing innovations it revealed; the first time we’d really seen a mouse; the first time we’d seen point and click technology; the first time we’d seen anything like those elegant graphic fonts on a computer screen; the first time we’d seen icons for actions (the dustbin has endured) and generally the first time where intuitive WYSIWYG technology (what you see is what you get) replaced the impenetrable barrier of code. All these innovations existed in parts of other things, but never in one small machine before, and never writ large to a consumer audience. It was a lovely campaign, characteristic of the spare elegant aesthetic of Apple and predating the influence of Jonny Ives, Apple’s design guru.

But we had felt, and Steve had agreed, that it wasn’t enough. Putting the power of computers into peoples’ hands had a more sociological significance than simple product features, however nifty, would suggest.

We wanted to reach not just the high ground of today’s market but the terra incognito of the future. So, to plant an unshiftable stake in that ground, we had made a “teaser” commercial that would precede the main campaign. It was called 1984 and was directed by Ridley Scott, only a year or so after Blade Runner. The idea was there for the taking (the launch was January 1984, after all) and the metaphor was clear: a nightmare Orwellian vision of the future where a restrictive and controlling big brother state is challenged and smashed by a brave (and female) liberator.

We had planned to launch it to the huge audiences of the Superbowl and had already bought the media. The Apple Board, Silicon Valley titans to a man, were uncomfortable with the negative imagery, the aggressive stance versus IBM and the distinct lack of a product. Quantitative research confirmed their worst fears. They were ready to burn the ambitious and expensive production and sell off the media at a loss, at the very last minute.

We felt the shallow design and reading of the research was wrong. So, with a Macintosh marketing man, yours truly embarked on a two-week cross-continental odyssey to show America the film, and watch, listen to and understand the reaction. (Qualitative research, or focus groups, as they came to be known). We alternated the groups in each location. One was shown the 1984 “teaser” film first then the “demo” launch campaign — the order we planned to roll out. The other, just the launch campaign. The difference was astounding.

A special meeting of the Apple Board was called to make a final decision. It was a few days before the commercial was due to run. Fresh (or not) from snowed-in Cincinnati or somewhere similar, I presented an argument to that po-faced line-up. Our case was that not only would the “teaser” ad secure national awareness of the Macintosh brand, but it would set an important high-stakes context in which any further product launches would be significantly more interesting. It would make IBM’s forthcoming entry into the personal computing market more difficult. It would also sear a permanently differentiated positioning for Apple into the national consciousness. Our bet was that a significant cohort of consumers would identify with and choose the brand for a long time to come, irrespective of specific products or features. “Soon there will be two kinds of people: those who use computers and those who use Apples”.

My colleagues were convincing. Steve was passionate. Sculley was dispassionate, even negative. As a new CEO it couldn’t have been an easy moment for him. We prevailed and the Apple Board reluctantly agreed to run the ad just once, hoping to limit the damage. The rest is history.

The reaction to the ad was hugely positive. It was covered as a main news item multiple times in national TV and press, generating untold media value. The message of that “teaser” ad securely positioned Apple for the next 20 years, through thick and thin. The ad itself has become one of the most lauded of all time and is still often shown when Apple is in the news. It also kicked off the Superbowl as a media showcase for ambitious brand advertising where before there had just been shiny, happy people, mostly drinking beer.

Sculley’s lack of support for the ad, for the agency and for Steve on this issue at that moment was instrumental in the subsequent breakdown of their relationship, to Steve’s exit from Apple and to his eventual triumphant return. A footnote to the story is that the agency Chiat/Day was fired in Steve’s absence, rehired by Steve as a condition of his rejoining, and went from strength to strength with the launch of the iMac and the Think Different campaign. It remains Apple’s agency today.

It’s almost unbelievable that all this was 30 years ago. I’m wearing my Apple Watch, synched to three other Apple devices, and I paid for the movie with Apple Pay. I’m tempted to say that even Steve couldn’t have imagined all that, but actually I bet he did.

So it’s worth treasuring those pizza moments. You don’t always know when you might be making some kind of history.

MT Rainey