Simple Is Bad

How advertising’s simplicity bias is undermining diversity and killing creativity

Ian Mackenzie
Jan 8, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo: David Woodger

Simple. It’s one of the creative advertising industry’s most powerful ideas. Simple is the answer. It’s the goal. Make it simple. Keep it simple. Simple is good. Simple is great. Simple is the greatest of all time. Got a simple solution to a complicated problem? Good job. You’re done. You’ve won. Take the rest of the day off.

Here’s a counterpoint: Simple isn’t good. Simple is bad—at least an unexamined, overactive bias toward simplicity is bad. It’s bad because it could be costing us some of our best people and our best ideas.

The Digital Divide

If advertising is obsessed with simplicity and simplicity is good, where does that leave digital? While digital is many things, simple isn’t one of them. Digital, and its cohort data, are complex and networked almost by definition. And what’s Acxiom data? And do we really need both a UX and a UI? And how do we sequence the campaign story across the consumer journey?

The napkin math is this: Digital is complex. And because the simplicity bias says complicated is bad, digital and data are bad by association. And this can cause smart people trained in traditional thinking to avoid or tamp down digital ideas and tactics because they appear to be at odds with the simplicity dogma.

Test-drive a bias toward complexity instead. That is, make extra and intentional effort to understand the technical details, the platforms, and the inner workings of a digital project, even when it feels like someone else’s job to do so. It’s amazing how many opportunities are sitting in plain sight in the wires and the weeds, undiscovered because creative people have been told not to look there.

Complicating Simple Ideas

It’s a paradox, but many of the best, most simple-looking digital ideas I’ve been part of (including “Our Food. Your Questions.” for McDonald’s and “Destination Pride” for PFLAG) share a common characteristic. The thing that makes the finished work look simple emerged not at the project’s outset, but midprocess. We discovered it through prototyping and iteration. This is likely because good ideas that make use of complex platforms often need runway to find their most simple expressions. The problem comes when we evaluate emerging ideas not on their ability to be simple later, but rather on their ability to appear simple at the start.

Instead of all-or-nothing, gate-based waterfall, experiment with agile-type working methods that favor iteration and prototyping. This will give a more complex idea a fighting chance to find its feet.

When Simplicity Undermines Diversity

Simplicity is one of those I’ll-know it-when-I-see-it things. But who decides what’s simple? To a person coming from a nondominant culture, for example, simple could be a metaphor or reference that looks abstract and overcomplicated to the mainstream decision maker. Simple is subjective. And people who already have power also have their own ideas about what simple is and what it looks like. Creative thinkers from diverse groups may have to comply with the dogma, face rejection, or risk their ideas not being heard.

Build and work with the most diverse teams you can find. After core capabilities, prioritize different kinds of thinkers, ages, genders, and ethnocultural backgrounds. In addition to improving business outcomes, diverse teams have also shown advantages in “generating a wider range of original and useful ideas.”

Keep Great Thinkers in the Industry

Is there a less popular advertising persona than the academic? The theory wonk? The cerebral? At its worst, the simplicity bias contributes to a culture of hostility to deeper, slower thinking. A recent LinkedIn study cited “lack of long-term strategic vision” as one of the key reasons people are leaving the advertising industry. A byproduct of the simplicity bias? Hard to say. But when we overweight our agencies with thinkers who put simplicity first, we may also be underweighting on more well-rounded or even complexity-biased thinkers.

Don’t let them go! If you’re lucky enough to find effective thinkers who favor complexity, embrace and celebrate them. Pith is powerful. There should also be room for long, slow, and thorough.

A Preference for Simple Problems

This is a bit like deciding the answer will be the number four before knowing the question. Or that the solution to global unity, peace, and understanding will be, say, a can of Pepsi. If we start with the premise that the solution will be an ad-like object whose primary characteristic is simplicity, we may be opting out of solving problems that can’t be fixed with simple. When brands are allocating their marketing dollars, we’re seeing more CMOs sharing decision-making power with their CTOs and even CEOs. This suggests an increased confidence in marketing’s potential to address a wide range of the organization’s challenges. In this context, settling for simple solutions to simple problems risks eroding the client-agency value equation.

Just be tireless in pursuit of the clients’ toughest challenges. The great agencies already do it. But if we’re doing good work on the core business, there’s no ceiling to the upside of this habit.

Of course, simple isn’t all bad. Simple can be good, for all the reasons everyone already knows and agrees on. But complex is also good. And in a world with an overactive simplicity bias, complexity needs more champions.

Writer and Chief Creative Officer at FCB/SIX.

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