Code Worldwide

Steve Jobs: the world's greatest Creative Technologist

15.12.2011
Matt McNeany

Matt McNeany

Founder and Chief Executive Officer

Billion Dollar Hippy’ was a fantastic BBC2 documentary on Steve Jobs in the UK last night. Having had a bit of time to reflect since he sadly succumbed to life’s “great change agent”, the show made me realise that he was the world’s greatest Creative Technologist. I’m not an Apple fan-boy, many of us at Code aren’t (most of us are even on PCs...). But Steve Jobs’ influence on what we do is huge. Here are three thoughts on why he inspires us and will continue to do so for a long time.

Innovation and invention

The Creative Technology work we do at Code tends to fall into three categories – new ways of working, new ways of engaging people and, as and when either of those is “insanely great”, they often become new business models for clients. Steve Jobs was an expert all three.

Making things better

One phrase that leapt out of the show was his understanding of the difference between invention and innovation. This is an important part of his legacy, and not a distinction that’s often drawn. Of course invention is innovation – Steve Jobs was undoubtedly an inventor – but so is improving something that’s already there. Taking the MP3 player, home computer or even the humble mouse and transforming them into things we loved and needed is very much a ‘new way of working’. Steve Jobs looked at what existed, understood how to make them better and obsessively pursued his own convictions.

As we said just after he died, here in the marketing industry, we’re all obsessed with the latest innovations. But we often fall into the trap of equating innovative with new. This ignores this second and often richer source of innovation, one that Steve Jobs understood well – instead of doing something new and often unproven, it’s often far more transformative to look at what’s gone before and do it better.

Engaging new people in new ways

As for finding new ways of engaging people. This is pretty self-evident. Ever tried to dissuade a Mac evangelist? Or seen how many iMacs were sold to people who hadn’t previously owned a computer? When the iPad came out, the naysayers said that we didn’t really need tablets – maybe not, but we certainly seem to desire them. Apple had again opened our eyes to something new.

New business models

Which brings us to the creation of new revenue streams and business models. Again, that’s an easy one. In fact, you could argue that Steve Jobs’ most enduring legacy is over what you could clunkily describe as the ‘content industry’ (entertainment – films, music etc); more so even than on devices and consumer electronics. His pivotal role in the seismic shift in the way we all buy, consume and carry our content – and the business models of the businesses involved – can’t be understated.

Style leads to substance

Another useful insight from last night’s show came from Ewan Evans’ interview with Stephen Fry. Stephen (clearly he and I are on first name terms) debunked the myth that Apple’s technology represented ‘style over substance’. He argued that if technology is stylish, we love it more – then we use it more and get more done. More style creates more substance. This is a great truism of Code’s world – we define Creative Technology as existing at the intersection of business, people and technology.

Great technology is built on human need (style) and commercial sense (substance). Take one of these three pillars away and you lose direction. In many ways, the seamless connection between style and substance is Steve Jobs’ (not to mention Jonathan Ive’s) most annoying and pervasive legacy to the world of Creative Technology – he makes us look bad. It was his grasp of brand, people and technology that creates the obsessive fan-boy (and girl) culture. If Apple products weren’t a joy to use, touch and see, you wouldn’t see those lines around the stores.

So, wow, talk about raising the bar – gee thanks, Steve! Because this is the standard that Apple has established, every very piece of technology that anyone (never mind Code) creates needs to be effortless, intuitive and most definitely designed for people, not by engineers. On our best days, we do that – but we’re certainly not there yet. Being inspired by Steve Jobs makes us all better.

Be good at more than one thing

The last thought that struck me was that Steve Jobs – despite probably being pretty unpleasant to be around a lot of the time, not least for scamming ‘Woz’ out of his fair share of the bonus for working on Breakout – was that he was probably the inspirational leader he was as much for his breadth of talent as his commitment, passion and zeal.

It’s one thing to be a great techy, it’s another to know what people want before they do. Who knows if Henry Ford actually ever said that line about if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, they’d have said they wanted a faster horse. But Steve Jobs clearly kept Apple ahead of our own sense of what we wanted. You don’t achieve that without being pretty insightful about human nature – especially for a techy, so often characterized as the insular geek. This resonates for me with Creative Technology and for marketing and the wider creative industries.

As Adland’s own sage, the wonderful Rory Sutherland describes in this great interview from Source, you’re far more likely to be successful if you’re able to combine more than one skill. Many of the world’s leaps forward have occurred through the crossover of disciplines, ideas and processes – this is surely particularly true in the creative industries where innovation is so fundamental.

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Perhaps the best tribute a Creative Technologist can bestow on Steve Jobs is that he was a visionary. He just saw things – and had the clarity of thought and bloody-mindedness to pursue a better way. And for anyone working in technology – in marketing or otherwise – he’s forced us all to think more deeply about what’s great and how it could be even better. And ins't 'better than great' a pretty healthy thing to aspire to? (btw, Brits can catch Billion Dollar Hippy on iPlayer until the 21st)