The art of less: an advertising lesson from Bill Bernbach – and Bruce Lee

Less is more, so they say.

This is certainly the case with two luminaries who have always inspired me with their art of reduction and simplicity: advertising great Bill Bernbach and Hong Kong’s most famous son, Bruce Lee. So, what links these two – apart from their first names both beginning with B?

Bernbach you already know much about, no doubt. Better people than me have written of his ability to champion iconic brands. His VW campaigns are still among my favourite pieces of communication, despite me being more active in the digital world. The sharp art direction and tone of voice fashioned under him and DDB in the 60s still (in my opinion) stand the test of time, and are lessons in craft that young creative practitioners can learn from.

Then there’s Bruce Lee.

Lee was just 32 when he died. But despite this, he led an astonishing life – one that we can learn much from. I’m a big fan and I am not alone. Time magazine celebrated Lee as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. An original disruptor, not only did he fight fictional villains in his films, but he also fought against racism and championed gender equality in real life, and at a time when the US was even more divided than it is today. To most people, Lee is best known for kick-starting (literally) a new entertainment genre with his kung fu films of the 70s. But here I am going to focus on his Jeet Kune Do fighting style – the innovative and revolutionary martial art he invented.

Lee was profoundly influenced by Taoism in his creation of Jeet Kune Do. Taoism is a Chinese philosophy attributed to Lao Tzu, but not one that had gained much traction in the modern world at that time. To succeed in life, Lee reasoned, you needed to be like the Tao: formless, pliable and forever in flux. And to be like this, you had to master the power of less. In his own words: “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.”

Lee’s fighting style was not invented from scratch, but came from taking the best of all other martial art styles, which he mastered to their highest level, and then absorbing them into his own style. His purpose was to discover the best techniques of all the various styles, and through continuous refinement make them more effective. Lose what was not necessary and then refine and refine to uncover the purest and simplest form.

Take Japanese karate as an example. Karate has one action for defence and one for attack: a fighting style passed down through the centuries. Jeet Kune Do comes along and turns attack and defence into just one action: a block into a punch and punch into a block – amazingly straightforward and practical. You could punch and block in one move, not in two separate moves as traditional karate taught at the time. It sounds obvious now, but it was a revolutionary refinement that was extremely deadly. And above all, its simplicity was and is beautiful.

This genius for reduction is what brings these two greats from the past together, in my opinion. Neither took the shortcut to make life easier. Neither sought out some ugly reduction based on a lowest common dominator. Instead, they completely mastered various skills and through hard work trimmed off the unwanted, lost the unnecessary, and were left with the magic of simplicity. This process of distilling and distilling to a create a pure form is so much harder than it seems, but its consequence is unquestionably powerful.

So, why do I think this is relevant today?

Well, fast forward to now – actually and more importantly, to the next decade. Our young future creatives are faced with a very different landscape than that of Bernbach’s day. No longer do we have only a few channels from which our audience can glean information. Today and tomorrow, young creatives face multifarious channels and an audience increasingly impenetrable, selective and sceptical of brands. The dynamics of digital and social, and the industries of entertainment and technology all vie for consideration. A non-stop, 24/7 world ceaselessly pumping out information to our audience means that they are constantly trying to decode a world of ever-increasing noise…

Against this sheer avalanche of noise – so-called ‘communication’ to feed an always-on world – it strikes me that our future creatives might instead be inspired by these two grandmasters of simplicity.

Too often, we rush blindly towards technology as the first answer to everything. Far too often, we see the pursuit of increasing layers of noise, only to make the complex even more more complex. More layers of noise upon more layers of noise for what obscure purpose?

Too often, people create veneers of shining-ness, commotion and misdirection to conceal that there is nothing of real substance beneath. Where is the strong and simple idea? Have the tools of technology, data, content or social driven a true and meaningful connection into the hearts and minds of the audience? Often not, unfortunately! Mostly, there’s just more noise and gimmicks – as if no one has ever heard it said: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should…”

With so much noise pollution being put out by so many, it’s little wonder we have seen the rise of ad blockers and a growing disinterest in advertising. Surely, it’s a warning sign that we as an industry need to stop pumping out so much average work in the hope of attention, and instead trust in and champion the fine art of connecting with the refined and simple. Refining the idea to be singular, pointed and immediately relevant to our audience. Helping our next generation of creatives to focus – so that they can connect at a deeper level and cut through the noise with brilliance and craft.

As Bruce did, it’s our duty to fully master our craft, and as he did with Jeet Kwon Do, take away interference and reveal the singular idea that is both powerful and moving. Whether an app, campaign, website, product or service, experiential piece or ad – each demands the same refinement that the next generation of creatives needs to rediscover. Like a sculptor working a piece of marble, it’s what you take away that matters: to reveal the essential form beneath and so move the soul.

As they say, less is more. That has never been more true than today, in a world overdosing on information and crying out for the beautifully simple.

Wayne Deakin is executive creative director at AKQA London

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