Every Wednesday, Lee Clow, creative director of Apple’s ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, flies from Los Angeles to Cupertino to meet with Steve Jobs, a weekly get-together that’s been going on for years.
Meanwhile, in Redmond, Wash., Steve Ballmer barges into the office of Mich Mathews, head of Microsoft’s central marketing group, giving her high fives and shouting again and again “I’m a PC!”
Those are two of the scenes Devin Leonard re-creates for the New York Sunday Times business section in “Hey, PC, Who Taught You to Fight Back?” a 3,000-word feature that may be the best thing written to date about the competition between Apple AAPL and Microsoft MSFT unfolding on our TV screens.
“It’s an ad war,” writes Leonard, “one destined to go down in history with the cola wars of the 1980s and ’90s and the Hertz-Avis feud of the 1960s.”
Among the highlights of Leonard’s story:
According to TNS Media Intelligence, Apple spent $264 million on television ads in 2008, 71% more than Microsoft. In the first six months of 2009, however, Microsoft responded with $163 million worth of commercials, more than twice Apple’s spending.
The Get a Mac campaign had been ridiculing Microsoft for a year before Ballmer decided he needed to strike back, barging into Mathews’ office to give her the green light. In Feb. 2008 Microsoft picked Crispin Porter & Bogusky, best known for its cheeky Burger King ads, to lead the campaign.
Bob Reilly, Crispin Porter’s executive creative director, was initially apprehensive. He didn’t even own a PC; he worked on a MacBook Air. (He has since bought himself two PCs — a Sony Vaio and a Lenovo ThinkPad.)
Advertising is not part of Microsoft’s DNA. Bill Gates, “never really seemed to get marketing.” Case in point: “The Wow is Now” campaign for Vista. “It was a bad product,” says Jeff Musser, a former McCann Erickson creative director who worked on the Vista campaign. “I didn’t really hear anybody saying, ‘Wow.’ ”
There were also cultural issues at Microsoft. On Madison Ave., they say that the more hands that touch an advertisement, the worse it becomes. Microsoft felt differently. “They thought the more people saw it and gave an opinion, the better it would be,” Mr. Musser said. “That’s how you develop software. It’s not how you develop great creative.”
At first, Crispin Porter was reluctant to attack Apple, but that changed last summer. “As the tone of their campaign became more and more negative, we were like, ‘We gotta do something,'” Mr. Reilly said. ‘That’s where the whole notion of ‘I’m a PC’ and putting a face on our users came about. We have a billion users. That’s who our cast is, whereas Apple is just two fictitious characters.”
The war is heating up again. After a three-month hiatus, Apple launched three new ads last week to accompany the arrival of Snow Leopard. The launch of Windows 7 in late October will be preceded by another Crispin Porter ad blitz.