Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The exactitude of simple ideas

Published in Jan-Feb 2017

Why brutal simplicity in thought is so vital to good advertising.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

In the September-October issue of Aurora I wrote ‘Eight ingredients to ruin Pakistan’s ad industry’. The article was about why ‘ingredient-based advertising’ is so prevalent in Pakistan.

Ingredients-based approaches are great for fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s which thrive on the consistency of their burgers across continents. However, high levels of consistency or sameness are the death knell for advertising agencies.

Brutal simplicity in thought allows us to break free of the enslavement to ingredients. The approach has two hallmark traits; the first as an instrument for the transformation of brands; the second as an enabler of the survival of the fittest. The world has progressed tremendously over the course of the past millennia when humanity took its greatest leaps from the shoulders of a group of brilliant individuals who approached the problems of their day with brutally simple thinking and transformed the world.

1) A simple tool that transformed transportation

In about 3,500 BC, the Mesopotamians invented the wheel. Originally used as a potter’s wheel, an unnamed genius had the idea to build a chariot around it. This transformed warfare and the world as well.

2) Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

Three words that changed France. A simple thought that captured the spirit of the French Revolution and shook the political and intellectual foundations of Europe. These words captured the imagination of the working class and led to a revolution that saw the fall of the Bourbon monarchy and the execution of Louis XVI.

3) All the power, majesty and beauty of music, captured with a symbol and a line

In 1000 CE, Guido D’Arezzo invented the modern system of musical notation, allowing future musicians to visualise all forms of music within a single system. Every nuance and all the emotion and beauty.

4) A new era of convenience for tea drinkers

Struggling to make ends meet, Thomas Sullivan, a New York coffee merchant, turned to tea and sent out samples in small silk sachets rather than in expensive tins. His penny-pinching was misunderstood by his customers who failed to realise that they were supposed to open the sachet and empty the contents into a pot before brewing their tea. The teabag was born.

If the power of brutally simple ideas can transform the world, it can surely work wonders with brands. In fact, agencies that have implemented brutally simple ideas have become valuable to brand owners. In each case, there has always been a powerful consumer truth married to a powerful brand truth.

Here are a few of my favourite examples:

Turning a simple pharmacy bottle into an iconic brand
This Swedish vodka brand originally came in an old-fashioned pharmacy bottle. The brand owners turned this disadvantage into the brand’s advantage by making the bottle the inspiration behind one of the most iconic advertising campaigns of modern times. The idea was brutally simple; an ‘Absolut’ world that connected with consumers everywhere.

Turning brand behaviour into compelling communication
Red Bull turned the concept of the ‘extreme’ into something quite different from an advertisement. It created a brand behaviour whereby the limits of human endurance were tested when Australian skydiver Felix Baumgartner flew 24 miles up into the stratosphere before freefalling and then parachuting back to Earth while the world watched him in stunned silence. People connected with this brand behaviour in the most compelling manner.

Convincing men to stop smelling like women
This came from a simple, yet often overlooked, insight. Most men use personal care brands with scents that are intended for women and actually ended up smelling more like women. Old Spice launched a body wash that made men smell like men. ‘The Smell like a Man, Man’ campaign was born. One of the greatest case-studies in modern times.

Survival of the fittest
This phrase was coined by Charles Darwin in 1864 in his theory of evolution. Darwin illustrated this concept with the Dodo, a flightless bird that was not fit enough to survive. The Dodo became a symbol for extinction.

I don’t believe that the advertising industry of Pakistan faces any risk of extinction; rather, the risk is commoditisation, making agencies become a lot less valuable to their clients. Not quite death, yet a horrible state of existence. Such a state of being makes it easy for substitutes such as directors and comedians taking over concept development. It also paves the way for the biggest monster of all – regional adaptations.

Brutal simplicity is about going through a process of removing everything that is not essential and arriving at the distilled core. This approach demands that planners distil brand truths from data.

Brutal simplicity is the way of nature and the key to making agencies valuable. People who adapt to changing environments, and yet, retain a distinctive edge are the ones who tend to trump those who are slow and unwieldy. The same applies to advertising agencies that face dilution if they fail to retain their edge. This is a necessity for brands as well, as consumers are bombarded by a tsunami of messages, the vast majority of which are forgotten. Simple messages enter the brain faster.

It is much easier to complicate than to simplify. It is easy to gloss over an inadequate thinking process by applying the usual garnish of jingles, emotional melodrama, teacher learner, slice of life and slapstick comedy. Brutally simplifying the thought process is tough. It is easy to waffle and hide behind PowerPoint presentations. Brutal simplicity is about going through a process of removing everything that is not essential and arriving at the distilled core. This approach demands that planners distil brand truths from data. A compilation of the top 20 insights simply will not do. It is about uncovering the overarching brand truths that lie at the heart of a brand. It is about combining consumer insight and brand truths and coming up with a brutally simple single thought that has the power to achieve the impossible.

Brutal simplicity is not a discipline, it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure in what is weak and clarifies and strengthens what is strong. It is about the survival of the fittest. It makes the human mind function at its best and is supremely effective.

Afzal Hussain is COO, Pirana and Director Strategy, M&C Saatchi World Services Pakistan.