Steve Jobs has done an amazing turnaround at Apple since he retook the helm. Apple was in a death spiral it appeared; yet today they are the most valuable tech company in the world. For a while Apple was a bitter, twisted company that produced nice looking products that nobody but fanatics bought. Today, everyone but my mother has an iPod, iPhone, iMac or iPad. Some poor souls like me have all four. Apple, in short, is king of consumer tech right now. Will that last forever? I for one doubt it.
Right now Apple has a great team headed by a visionary leader. At some point that team will grow old, run out of energy and start to fragment. Apple’s future will be determined by the ability of the company to create a new generation of leaders. I know I’m stating the obvious when I say that but my point is that it is easy to assume that Apple has that problem nailed in the same way they have their product strategy right now. But do they?
When news of Steve’s illness was pushed on to the market, people speculated about who would take over from him. All of that speculation tended to focus on internal rather than external candidates. This makes a great deal of sense and is most likely what will happen. However, if they do go internal we can expect the losers of that battle to be at best disenfranchised and at worst leave. This will in turn lead to a weaker team at the top. Furthermore Apple is likely to have to live through a period where any new CEO is constantly being measured against Steve. That’s a hard act to follow. They’re not going to get standing ovations like he does when they walk on stage at the Moscone for product launches. The crowd isn’t going to laugh at the little jokes that are thrown in. In other words the ‘Steve factor’ will be lost and Apple will be just another good company, rather than a great one.
When this happens, the door will be wide open for rivals large and small. Right now Apple is all but impossible to beat in the consumer space. Sure there are some that hate them but they are a minority. That could change very quickly. Microsoft could fix its mobile strategy, RIM could design a BlackBerry that iPhone users would like or some new player could appear.
My point in all this is that innovation within a company is directly linked to its success but is also linked to the people that run that company. They are the ones that decide which products to sell to whom and at what price. They are the ones that create the markets, the excitement and so on. While some companies do a good job of creating a culture of innovation, even they know that it is what you do with that innovation that matters. Put another way, you will only keep on winning for as long as you have the best team. Today Apple has that team but there will come a time when they don’t. And come that day, others will take their chance.
I’ve been reading Change by Deign written by Tim Brown, IDEOs CEO. It’s a good read and really gets you thinking. Relatively early in the book he quotes Henry Ford who, when talking about his first car said: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” His point being that real innovation requires people to think beyond the current way of doing things. He goes on to say that you can actually learn more from the people at the fringes than you can from the masses. What he’s saying is that the people who are distorting the use of a product can tell you more about how to improve it than those that are simply using it in the way it was intended.
All this got me thinking about innovation and PR and I quickly concluded that our industry has been focused for years on incremental innovation. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any true game changing innovation. Press releases, product reviews, profile pieces, consumer stunts etc etc. When the Internet started to play a role in PR, the email pitch got developed and we discovered how to create micro sites. When social media came along we developed (or Todd Defren’s guys did) the Social Media Press Release and we learned about Facebook communities and Tweeting. In short there was some good innovation but it wasn’t innovation in the way Tim Brown would use the word. It wasn’t someone dreaming up a car, when there used to be horses. It’s my belief that the industry is at a point in its history where that kind of innovation is really needed and the opportunity for it really exists.
I’m afraid I don’t come to you with the answer here but hopefully someone out there has figured out that in the same way as the stagecoach business was a transport business and thus could have transformed into an airline business, the PR business is a reputation business and can be transformed from a largely influence based model to a business that actually manages reputations far more directly. The person who really figures this out has the chance to completely reconfigure the market. When they do, the list of major PR firms will look a lot different.