Keep it complex, stupid: A plea for the glory of complexity

Image of complexity

KISS; short for Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Oi! Who are you calling stupid, Stupid?

Whisper it in hushed tones, for it is probably marketing heresy, but simplicity is greatly overrated. And over-simplifying in most cases is downright dangerous.

Now, clearly it is a fundamental skill of a planner to make the complex, simple. But as Einstein once said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I believe that perhaps we have accepted simplicity as the one true God and I’m noticing it’s not always the right thing.

The world is a complicated place, life is complicated and let’s face it, marketing is becoming increasingly complicated. My proposed enemy isn’t simplicity per se, but the sin of oversimplification.

This infatuation with simplicity is bad for the world. It encourages binary thinking (Remoaners v Brextremists etc) and favours over-simplified solutions to complex world problems (#MAGA). So here is a new mantra to kill KISS stone dead. I call it KISIS (Keeping It Simple Is Stupid). Not convinced? OK.

Businesses are complicated. Often we try and reduce a business/comms problem to one thing. And I think this might be damaging too. Businesses are complex so therefore business problems are complex. Maybe (Heresy! Heresy!) we actually have four or five problems that need to be fixed with comms. So maybe some of the comms will fix one problem and other comms with fix another. I think this is the heart of Binet and Field’s Brand Response model. We tend to oversimplify when we are planning communications and the world is rarely as simple as we can make it look on 21st century witchcraft (or Keynote as it’s sometimes alternatively called). KISIS.

Audiences are complicated. Most segmentations are hopelessly simplistic and pretty much useless for anything other than making money for those who devise them. How many segmentations have you seen with more than eight segments? Gracious me, even the bloody Horoscopes have 12 - and they’re a load of tosh. 60 million people in Britain: Are you really telling me that they can all be stuffed into one of eight buckets? No, they can’t. We’re complex creatures with multiple competing desires and attitudes, often simultaneously across different parts of a day. I once saw a segmentation for headache pills where I could stick myself in seven-out-of-eight segments. The simplicity in segmentation studies is rarely useful. As a marketer, ask yourself a question and answer it honestly. Does your segmentation cause more problems than it solves? I reckon in most cases it does for both agencies and clients – because of oversimplification. KISIS.

The media landscape is complicated. The IPA’s brilliant paper 'Know the Value of Media' highlighted this in 2014. Between 2003 and 2014, there was a 46% increase in the number of TV stations in the UK. The number of radio stations rose by 17% in the same period, the number of consumer magazines by 24% and the number of poster sites by a whopping 217%. Add to this the proliferation of digital platforms and the emergence and ultimate triumph of social media in the same period and you’ll see that the media world has become increasingly complex. The brilliant thing about this is that it gives us multiple ways to reach audiences in different ways when they are in different mindsets. Great! Let’s embrace this complexity and get smart about using it to our advantage – rather than galloping to (over) simplify it for the purposes of making charts look neater. KISIS.

Creativity is complicated. “Keep it Simple, Stupid” also leads to one of the ugliest phenomenon in modern communications – the matching luggage problem. Obviously consumers are far too stupid to deal with two sets of pictures or two creative executional techniques aren’t they? I mean, they’ll follow multi-level narratives in shows like Game of Thrones but their tiny brains will melt if the poster doesn’t have a massive picture of the telly advert on it. Grrrrrrrr. I’d hazard a guess that most consumers don’t give a stuff. Your posters can be different from your telly in the same way that you can wear a hoodie one day and a suit the next without your family suddenly believing you’ve developed acute schizophrenia. They are different mediums, so it’s OK to use them differently. KISIS.

I’m all for being clear, concise and cogent. I’m a big fan of understanding the key challenges and the key message(s) we want to get across. But I’m not a fan of simplification for convenience, or simplifications, sake.

Let’s keep it more complicated. In a lot of cases it’s the more useful thing to do. I think most consumers are far smarter than most clients or agencies give them credit for. After all as the man himself, David Ogilvy, said: “The consumer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife.”

Kevin Chesters is the chief strategy officer for Ogilvy & Mather

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