Simplicity and Creativity

An earlier version of this post was commissioned by and appeared on the IAB’s UK site

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it is that we love to complicate things. And if there’s a second thing, it’s that if we want our customers to buy whatever it is we’re selling we need to be able to communicate the complex simply.

When I was starting my career in agencies, the most irritating advice always started: ‘you never learn from the mistakes we made’. Media people have always over-complicated everything – that’s why there were all those jokes about the media part of any client presentation taking place immediately before (or, ideally, during) the break for lunch.

Now I find myself making the same no doubt still irritating point; the digital media planning, buying and selling businesses seem to have failed to take on board (again) the need for clarity and simplicity in how they communicate with those who ultimately pay our wages.

Take the word ‘programmatic’. It seems to be everywhere these days; and like a lot of words bandied about within the media element of the advertising business it is frequently misunderstood.

One reason for this is the fact that the meaning seems to mutate depending on who’s using it.

Or ‘native’. Yes we all joke that native is really just advertorials under a new name, and yes I know there are subtle differences but maybe we could come up with something more obviously descriptive.

One issue is the continued specialisation of conferences, and indeed the trade titles. As long as we think it’s more important to speak to ourselves rather than to our customers we’re simply going to widen the divide between the practitioners and the customer.

Speaking of customers, is it any wonder they are confused?

The adtech business might argue that they are so far removed from advertisers that it doesn’t really matter if they get it or not, as long as the agencies, or the traders do. That would be a huge mistake.

To state the obvious, it’s advertisers that pay the bills. It’s advertisers who decide which agencies to hire, and on what terms, and which media plans to buy. Ultimately it’s the advertisers who will determine the shape and the future of the online advertising business.

Take the enormous number of media accounts in review at the moment. Some say the total billings up for pitch totals US$25bn, others US$30bn. There are any number of theories as to why this has suddenly happened, but most agree that advertisers have decided that the current way they, and their agency partners do things has to change.

As someone said: ‘Where there’s chaos there’s margin’. They might have added, where there’s chaos change isn’t far away. At the moment the online ad business is fast becoming engulfed by chaos. There’s fraud, bots, conflicting opinions on what constitutes ‘viewability’, a lack of transparency over buys, a lack of respect paid to the plans that should surely drive the buys, far too many middle-men adding zero value to the end user, and so it goes on.

Most would also accept that most commercial messages exposed online are dreadful. Annoying. Lacking an idea. Tedious. To me that suggests that many of those charged with creating memorable brand stories and images are yet to come to terms with the many opportunities afforded by the technology.

We all like to think we work in a creative industry, but the truth is very few of us are really creative. We may copy, we may steal, we may come up with tactical ways of extending an idea, but that’s different from sitting down with a blank piece of paper and a deadline to come up with something good enough to persuade real people to do something they hadn’t until that moment thought of doing.

I’m not sure that we don’t confuse creativity with technology (although that’s a subject for another day) but we would do well to remember what creativity is.

One of the best weekly reads out there is Mobile Fix from Simon Andrews at Addictive. Simon likes to end his weekly newsletter by quoting the legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity”.

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