Apple Is Still Searching for Its Inner Don Draper

A still of Picasso from Apple's "Here's to the Crazy Ones" television ad, part of the "Think different." campaign. ©1997 Apple Inc. Close

A still of Picasso from Apple's "Here's to the Crazy Ones" television ad, part of the... Read More

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A still of Picasso from Apple's "Here's to the Crazy Ones" television ad, part of the "Think different." campaign. ©1997 Apple Inc.

(Corrects to show that TBWA\Media Arts Lab created "Chicken Fat" advertisement in graphic and starting in sixth paragraph.)

Over the years, Apple has excelled at tasks that are typically outsourced to consultants, such as public relations and product design. So far, its decision to bring advertising in-house is not faring as well. Based on one respected measure — viewer survey scores gathered by research firm Ace Metrix — Apple's homegrown commercials are underperforming those made by its longtime agency.

Apple began building its own team of ad men and women last year, amid frustration with TBWA\Media Arts Labs, a unit of TBWA\Chiat\Day, the agency that was responsible for the 1984 and Think Different commercials. So far, ads made by the in-house team have received a cooler reception from viewers on average than those made by the agency. Ace Metrix gathers data from hundreds of TV watchers to discern how persuasive and entertaining an ad is.

There's a reason big corporations hire advertising agencies, rather than try to put together a bench of their own Don Drapers. Going outside ensures that companies don't get too caught up in their own views of themselves, says Rob Siltanen, an advertising consultant who wrote the "Here’s to the crazy ones" copy for Apple’s iconic 1997 campaign after Steve Jobs returned to the company.

"The hardest ads I've ever worked on were ads for myself," Siltanen says. "There's a truism out there that applies: 'The lawyer who represents himself in court has an idiot for a client.' It's very hard to have the necessary perspective to do the job right."

South Korea's Samsung Electronics has been happy to let 72andsunny, a Los Angeles advertising firm, handle its creative. The partnership is paying off. A recent ad for the Galaxy S5, which shows the water-proof device being used to film kids in a sprinkler, scored a 739. That's the second Galaxy ad to top 700. The best score any Apple ad has ever gotten was 696 for a 2010 commercial for its FaceTime videoconferencing service.

The three best-performing Apple ads since late last year have come from TBWA\Media Arts Lab. At the top of the list was an ad showing various musicians using iPhone apps to produce a cover of the Pixies song "Gigantic." Next-highest was a commercial that ran during the holidays, in which a teen who seems to be using his iPhone to isolate himself from relatives turns out to instead be using it to make a home movie. The ad, which is much admired by ad industry veterans, scored high marks on "likeability" and "relevance," but poorly on convincing consumers to go out and buy a phone. A recent spot from TBWA\Media Arts Lab highlights how iPhone owners can use the device to exercise, set to the strains of an old-timey song called "Chicken Fat." It earned a score of 611 from Ace Metrix, not far behind TBWA's holiday ad.

The worst-performing commercial in the past year, done by Apple's in-house team, was a high-spirited spot for the iPhone 5c that showed a wide variety of people saying hello with the company's lower-priced phone.The main focus of Apple's in-house team has been a campaign that, like the original Think Different ad, suggests the most influential, creative people are natural Apple users. The series, which kicked off with a commercial in which actor Robin Williams reads a speech from the movie "Dead Poets Society,” ends with the tagline: "What will your verse be.”

(Historical note: Siltanen said in a 2011 article in Forbes that "Dead Poets" had been his inspiration for the Think Different copy. He said he'd even suggested that they get Williams to do the voiceover, which was ultimately done by Richard Dreyfuss.)

None of Apple's Verse ads scored higher than 600 on Ace Metrix's scale. That’s probably because Apple is struggling to find its voice now that it has gone from beloved underdog to the world's most valuable company, says Edward Boches, an advertising professor at Boston University. While the Think Different ad spoke directly to the impassioned minority of PC fans who had stuck by the Mac through years of decline, Apple's latest attempts to inspire a customer base that includes hundreds of millions of iPhone and iPad users felt unconvincing, he said.

"Apple’s best advertising always had something to do with a rival — IBM, or Microsoft, or in the case of Think Different, mediocrity," Boches says. "These ads just feel a little too soft, too safe."

Apple confirms that the in-house team made the Verse ads, as well as the iPhone 5c commercial.

All told, the homegrown ads had an average Ace Metrix score of 533, compared with 588 for the ads known to be made by TBWA\Media Arts Lab, according to people familiar with the companies' work.

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