Enamored with ‘simplicity’

Simplicity is good. A Simple message is more readily understood, more readily spread. So I am all for the final expression of ideas being simple – the tag line, the copy.. simpler the better, generally.

Even if we look under the hood, the thinking behind the ad, the strategy – simplicity often helps prioritise, helps clarify. The search for simplicity helps us frame our questions better, zero-in on key questions quicker.

However, simplicity has also become an excuse for the ignorant not to learn. Simplicity has become a tool that helps older generation remain in denial. The simplicity mantra has allowed the advertising industry leadership to remain complacent in the face of existential crisis.

Life is not simple. Understanding life is not simple. To arrive at a simple clarity, one typically has to go through fairly complex experiences and a conscious effort to engage with that complexity. Engaging with complexity to unearth meaning is the bedrock of human evolution. We are evolutionary deadwood if we don’t engage with emerging complexities and strive for relevance in the new world.

Here’s a few anecdotes of what I want to convey –

A client wanted to create a ‘platform for X’: a very promising and untapped area. But they had obviously not thought through yet. I thought of Scott Galloway’s insight that lists 10 factors that affect chances of success for a global platform company. The fact is, even this list of 10 factors would be considered over simplification by wiser folks. But it could help us help the client see the obvious areas of improvement in their business plan. Climbing up the value chain for us – from simply brand identity to strategy consultancy.

But unfortunately, the agency leadership did not understand and did not have the time to understand the basics of the new economy. They didn’t want to dabble into things they don’t understand, fair enough. But that means sidestepping a fair amount of opportunities.

Their desire for simplicity meant tremendous opportunity costs.

Second anecdote –
This was a typical NGO project related to changing certain health habits. Creative team jumps onto a morbid ‘shock treatment’ idea. Why not do something like ‘dumb ways to die’? The death part, not the fun happy jingle part. Never mind the context.

Fear works! they pronounce.
I show research saying that it is not very helpful. Some people rally, but a vast majority of TG would perceive it as an attack on their identity and pull up their defenses, strengthening their bad habits. It is a fairly well documented effect – the backfire effect. But sharing the knowledge of backfire effect, backfired. Creatives pulled up their defenses and held their morbid deathly idea even tighter to their bosoms.

They responded by ridiculing the research – there are so many conflicting researches. No point in listening to it. We ‘know’ fear works, they pronounced.

Fear to engage with unknown psychological complexities held them back from doing what could have been amazing work.

I feel that people who analyse ads often put far more thought than the people who make those ads. Because it is their job to deconstruct complexities with the first group. And to simplify and elicit a reaction for the latter group.

How do you learn if you don’t engage with the complex?
We need ruminations over complex matters to achieve the essential simplicity.

The ones who don’t engage their grey cells and their heart with real complexities, won’t find the elegant voice of truth that shapes great creative work.

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“That is the creative challenge”

If clients, planners, management folks and even creative directors make a habit of envisioning their idea before talking about it, we would be spared of a lot of bullshit.

So recently we presented an elegant campaign that was not ‘exciting enough’ to the client. They thrashed it mercilessly.

“Its a 20 seconder, we don’t have the time for a story.”
“Print needs to say ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘that’ and ‘this’. Make it all big. How will consumer know this. He needs to know that too……”

Essentially, they wanted to talk about five different things in an exciting manner in a twenty seconder ad that should also be clutter breaking since they had low budgets compared to competition.

I told them that the ad might work better if we concentrate on the most important thing – one thing to talk about. We might then have a chance of making memorable successful campaign. But nop. They wanted to say it all and apparently that is the creative challenge‘.

‘That is the creative challenge‘ is a phrase I have heard often enough. Its the lazy way out of having to make decisions. It is the lazy way out having to work as a team to arrive at better ideas.

It is precisely at this moment that one knows – the campaign is going to be  a dud. At a strategic level, the client has already made a mess and does not want to own up to it, to make sense of it. And no amount of creativity now is going to salvage it. And even if by the stroke of dumb luck, creatives come up with something workable, the idea will get ‘dialed up, dialed down‘ as the client tries to retroactively make sense of his / her strategy.

The antidote – Make people think along

If by some means you could inculcate a habit, inculcate this. For every meeting – briefing, brainstorming, client presentation etc., – make it a habit of visualizing the idea being presented. What could the idea mean actually? What are the best/ worst ads you can think of in that direction?

So if the planner gives you shitty brief with big words – ask him to give him an example of a ‘bad ad’. Give it a go. The planner has not thought through his brief if he doesn’t already have a few ideas himself.

So if the servicing guy comes back with client feedback that seems to worsen the creative work – ask him/ her to think along – how do they visualise it? how has the client visualised it?

so if the client asks to ‘dial up/ dial down’ or add this/ that – ask them to think along. ask them,

What should the ad say?”,
“What would the people remember from this ad?”

If no one has confident answers for these questions – there is no point in starting to work on a script/ idea. Get clarity about ‘what the ad needs to say/do’ first – not in abstract bullshit terms but words that anyone can visualise, actions that anyone can relate to.