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The TVC That Changed the Business World

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It's hard to imagine anyone who watched Super Bowl XVIII in January 1984 ever forgetting what many consider the highlight of that game: the moment our televisions filled with the image of a menacing Big Brother addressing, via giant screen, a room full of cowering and slack-jawed worker-drones. Into this monochromatic throng ran a colorfully dressed young athlete who hurled a hammer, obliterating this seemingly all-powerful autocrat in a shower of sparks.

It was this 60-second commercial -- aired in prime time only once -- that woke up most Americans to the existence of Silicon Valley. On its surface, it was an advertisement for Apple Computer. Most of the audience knew well that Big Brother was a reference to "Big Blue" -- IBM, the company that dominated the computer market all those years ago -- while Apple was the hammer-wielding voice of nonconformity and revolution.

But from today's perspective, the ad takes on added resonance, symbolizing what Silicon Valley was about to do to the American workforce in general: liberating many a worker-drone and smashing the old paradigms forever. As I note in The Talent Mandate, the Valley's approach to talent management, stressing the autonomy of the individual and an eradication of hierarchies, truly opened the way for today's talent revolution.

With that visionary commercial, Apple was not just selling a product; it was challenging an entire culture of command-and-control corporate conformism. From the moment the commercial aired, the old management models of corporate America were doomed. Within a few years, organizations everywhere had begun to flatten, a trend that would rapidly accelerate in the twenty-first century as the IT earthquake gathered strength.

In the advertising industry, we have been quicker than some to adopt talent-management approaches derived from California's high-tech corridor. We have learned the value, for instance, of engaging in small teams with a "garage like" mindset to get the job done. Last year at Arnold Worldwide, from concept through to launch, we built the new Jack Daniels website, a site that adapts to whatever device it is viewed on, in just 15 weeks across 30 countries. And we did it with a team of six. It is amazing what can be accomplished with a clear mandate, an agile team, and a flattened structure.

Today's emphasis on continuous learning is another valuable legacy handed down from the Valley. The centrality of Stanford University may account in part for why lifelong learning has always been considered so essential there; but then again, it may also be the fact that so many tech luminaries dropped out of school to start learning by following their personal ambitions: Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Michael Dell, and, of course, Steve Jobs.

At a Stanford commencement address in 2005, Jobs described how dropping out of Reed College in Oregon freed him up to take classes in subjects that especially interested him -- a calligraphy course, for example, that eventually enabled him to design elegant typography into Apple computers, thereby creating a powerful competitive advantage. In an interview a decade prior, Jobs stressed broad-minded learning as a key ingredient at Apple:

"I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world."

Continuous learning is about a lot more than taking classes, though; it is about trying new things, paying attention to what happens, and feeding the observations back into the next round. In Silicon Valley, and increasingly everywhere else, no company and no individual can afford to think they have achieved the definitive version of anything; there will always be competitors figuring out smarter alternatives.

Some would consider high-tech breakthroughs the greatest legacy of the Valley. In my view, its most lasting impact will be as the birthplace of the revolution that has transformed our world of work.