Advertising made simple

Leo Burnett's Thomas Kenny has some lessons on simplicity from music types.


By Thomas Kenny

“There’s a tremendous power in using the least amount of information to get the point across,” said Rick Rubin.

Rick Rubin is probably our greatest living record producer. Since starting his career in an NYU dorm room 30 years ago, he’s produced records for the Beastie Boys, Tom Petty, Kanye West, Johnny Cash, Adele, Jay-Z and dozens more. The list of artists he’s worked with is a veritable who’s who of popular music from the past three decades, but his very first production credit was for a then unknown rapper from Queens by the name of LL Cool J. It was on this record that Rubin laid the foundation for what would become his signature sound. While other hip-hop producers were embracing the cluttered sounds of disco, Rubin took the opposite approach and removed all but the essential. This stripped back sound was so central to Rubin’s style that rather than the standard “Produced by Rick Rubin” attribution, his production credit on the back of the album reads “REDUCED BY RICK RUBIN.”

The need for simplicity in advertising has never been more paramount than it is today. Because the media landscape is busier than ever, uncluttering your message and its delivery are requisites for breaking through the noise.

Ironically the path to simplicity begins with diving head first into the complex. The better we understand something, the easier it is to clearly and concisely explain it to someone. This is why before we can get to simplicity, we first need to understand the problem we’re trying to solve inside and out. In a recent treatise on the power of complex systems, Bud Caddell of the NOBL Collective wrote “Elegance, simplicity in its most ideal form, is the product of a concerted process that begins with embracing complexity.” Only when we have a thorough understanding of our product, category and target can we begin to distill the problem we are solving.

Having completed the upstream legwork, the next step to creative simplicity is a good brief. In the months prior to the release of The Rolling Stones’ seminal album Sticky Fingers, Mick Jagger wrote a letter to Andy Warhol asking him to create the cover artwork. The direction he provided read in part, “I leave it in your capable hands to do whatever you want… and please write back saying how much money you would like.” While this might sound like a dream brief to some (certainly the blank cheque part sounds appealing), this level of creative freedom can be paralyzing in the advertising world and can lead to endless rounds of feedback and revisions before getting to work that actually delivers on the business needs.

The best briefs are simple and focused. A favourite analogy of mine for strategic simplicity is that of a fisherman looking for fish. If a brief points the creative team at the ocean and tells them to fish wherever their muse takes them, they could be at sea for days and never find anything. Instead, the brief should act as a map, guiding the creative team to where they are most likely to find fish. It’s still up to them to catch the fish but their hit rate will be much higher.

But sadly, strategic simplicity does not always lead to executional simplicity. In recent years advertising has begun to confuse complexity for innovation. We now have so many tools and platforms and possibilities at our disposal that there is a tendency to want to use them all at once. Too often we create complex experiences that seem more so designed to show off our digital chops, than to actually be used by humans. Great ideas are weighed down with unnecessary layers of complication that make it harder for consumers to participate in the experience we’ve created for them. If we have the audacity to ask people to stop and listen or engage, it is our responsibility to ensure we deliver the creative product in a way that is as easy as possible for people to receive it.

Fortunately, this message has already begun to filter through. Looking back at some of the most successful and awarded advertising from the past year, many are works of strategic and executional simplicity. While many of us were building overly complex multi-platform/UGC/AR enabled/3D printed branded experiences, simple film saw a return to prominence. Volvo’s “Epic Split,” Dove’s “Real Beauty Secrets,” and Always’ “Like a Girl” are all examples of creative excellence whose unencumbered execution is bested only by their strategic simplicity. Which isn’t to suggest that we should return to a time where advertising is all one-way brand expressions. Interactive experiences can be simple as well, as evidenced by Honda’s exceptional “The Other Side” from a few weeks back. The interactive video is an executional marvel and all it asks of users is to tap their keyboard whenever they want to cut back and forth from two parallel narratives.

Simple isn’t easy and simple takes work. In the words of Winston Churchill, If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter. The key to simplicity is being ruthlessly choiceful. It is identifying the singular job to be done and ensuring everything is in service of that task. The extraneous should be thought of as obstacles getting between your consumer and the behaviour or mindset change you’re trying to catalyze. As with great design, perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away. Simple is much harder than complicated, but the end result can be a thing of beauty. Just ask Rick Rubin.

-Reduced by Tom Kenny

 headshotThomas Kenny (@Thomaskenny) is a strategic planner at Leo Burnett.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock