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Can an iPhone be an allegory for career success? 

Renowned advertising director Ken Segall, who worked with Steve Jobs and was the creative force behind Apple’s iconic “Think Different” campaign, thinks so. In his new book “Think Simple: How Smart Leaders Defeat Complexity” (out June 6), he delves into what makes simplicity so powerful and appealing.

We spoke with Segall about how to distill an idea down to its essence, and why you don’t need to be the next Steve Jobs — or even an entrepreneur — for this message to matter. You just need to be, well, the next you.

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You wrote about how Apple’s mission statement, “Enrich Lives,” was key to its success. Should someone just starting out come up with a simple mission statement?
A lot of people make things far more difficult that they need to be. I think people and businesses have a tendency to be so thorough and analyze and overanalyze that they sort of lose sight of the simplicity that is there for them to take ahold of and succeed with.

So I think in one’s personal life, it can help to have a mission, and stay true to that. Because we may get offers along the way that aren’t things we want to do, but we may get tempted by the money. Right before I became a writer — I was just a production guy at the time — one of the creative directors gave me advice that stuck with me forever. It was, “Only work at great places, only work on great accounts, do not worry about the money and everything will fall into place for you.”

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“Think Different” is so effective — but deceptively simple. How did you know it would work?
I didn’t come up with the words “Think Different.” That was an art director by the name of Craig Tanimoto. But it was all really just searching for that theme that would capture what Apple is about, because in those days, Apple was near bankruptcy, and it was very tough times. We didn’t have any new computers to sell, so it was more about telling the world that Apple was alive and well, Steve Jobs was back and things were going to change. We just tried to capture the spirit of the company.

I think the reason “Think Different” works so well is because it described Apple all the way back to the days in Steve Jobs' father’s garage. It was always about thinking different, and it continues to be. So it was very authentic. You can be simple about many things, but if you’re being simple about something that you are authentically, it’s that much more powerful.

True, all the CEOs you wrote about had such a genuine sense of purpose. It’s easy, in retrospect, to say they were visionaries, and of course they’d succeed. But it’s a different story when you still have to prove yourself.
If you look at the people who have really succeeded on very a high level, they’re the people who created a culture at their companies, and had that sense of purpose. I think it was striking to me, doing the research for the book, how many people played back a similar story.

The one I’m writing an article about right now is Ben & Jerry’s. It’s a good example for me because I always liked their ice cream. Their thing is all about values — about having a social conscience. Other companies make the same product, and don’t have those values. I guess that’s my point. That’s what makes the company unique. They have the product, but they also have an outlook — making the world a better place, taking stands on social issues. So when you think of Ben & Jerry’s, you think of all those things.

Right, they managed to take the basic premise of making the world better place, and spin it into a frozen dessert. But for the rest of us, what does that look like?
I definitely could use myself as an example. I always had this interest in technology, and then I kind of found this world of advertising, it was like, 'Oh, you can write about these things, even if you don’t know how to build them.' I realized it was my strength, and I could make money doing it.

I’m proud to say I was fired a couple of times. I thought maybe I’m not cut out for this advertising thing. We have a talent, we have a passion, but not every company on earth will be aligned and find incredible enthusiasm. Your job is just to find the place where the people share your values and appreciate your talent.

What did you learn from Steve about simplicity?
One of the reasons I try to psychoanalyze [Jobs] is he was basically his own boss at a very young age, he didn’t really know any limitations. In my later years, if he wanted something, and I told him it couldn’t happen, he didn’t really accept that. If it came down to it, he’d say, “ Well, if you can’t do that I’ll find someone who will.”

So Steve really pushed you?
Yeah, he got people to perform beyond their own expectations, which is what a great leader would do.

Anything else your career has taught you about the power of simplicity?
[In advertisting] I was led to believe you need to create a well-balanced portfolio. [But] I think too many people try to be everything. One of the warnings I received was that I’d be typecast as a technology guy, and I said, "Well, I want to be typecast as a technology guy." So I think, 'That’s my passion, why would I want to hide it among 10 other types of ads?' If you have that passion, then a company that has that kind of need will respond more positively to you.