John Legere is already trolling me and we haven't even been on the phone for a minute. "I'm so excited to speak with such a famous reporter," he says. I'm not famous, but Legere, T-Mobile's chief executive, is. Yet before he joined the company in 2012, consumers didn't have a clue who he was. At times, Legere can be alternatively goofy and rebellious, but is able to get away with it because he delivers (he's more than doubled the company's market cap since being hired). Now-commonplace offers from wireless carriers—no contracts, unlimited data, upgrade whenever you want—originated in T-Mobile's five-year-old "Un-carrier" marketing campaign, which Legere credits with fixing the worst aspects of cellphone plans. We spoke with him to see how much method underpins the madness. Our conversation has been edited.
You made a Claymation Christmas video last December in which you called Verizon and AT&T "bullshit." About two months later, AT&T filed a complaint.
When I got the call that AT&T was coming after our Claymation Christmas video, I became so happy. Somehow I just pictured the abominable snowman [depicted as AT&T in the video] having to do a deposition.
You have to admit that it's a real sad sign when you realize that an organization of professionals got together and couldn't come to the conclusion that fighting about a Claymation video is a bad idea. That made my day.
Is there a different John Legere than the one we see online?
For the first time in my life, I have no multiple personas, which is a really wonderful thing. I was almost a professional athlete. I have a lot of education. I was an aspiring young executive with a suit, tie and hair like Michael Douglas. And I was a young dad who had friends on the side. Those were all multiple personalities you would move between, but right now, I am all in, just me.
The "Un-carrier" campaign recently turned five. How has it helped T-Mobile's business?
The original concept I had was if we could just be the exact opposite of what these carriers are—un-them—then we could win. So I coined "the Un-carrier."
The first time we came out with it was at CES in 2013. I was onstage with [former Yankees manager] Joe Torre for an MLB deal. When it became Q&A, someone asked for my thoughts and ideas, and I literally snapped. I gave a talk, which became lore. I said that this industry is so horrific that if you came from Mars and landed in a spaceship, you'd see the wireless industry and go back to where you came from.
Through the Un-carrier, we were going to fix a stupid, broken and arrogant industry. And what I saw was a crowd that was so engaged in what it was, I knew we were close to something.
The Un-carrier phenomenon is like a small version of an Apple event. We find a pain point and we fix it. And when we make an Un-carrier move, it's permanent. It's a structural change in the industry that solves pain points, like no contracts, or introduces simplified billing or no international roaming.
What did Verizon and AT&T do in response?
Our goal was for everybody else to do what we were doing. We wanted to be the ones who caused something to change. No contracts or anytime upgrades—they didn't exist before us. But we didn't want to be the only ones doing it. We wanted the industry to move in the direction we were going.In the time period that has ensued, we have gained more customers than Verizon and AT&T combined. So it seems to be working so far.
When we do these things, I make it very personal.