The advertising industry’s ‘bias’ towards simplicity is flawed

With the marketing landscape becoming ever more complex and challenging, a default of settling for simple solutions to simple problems risks eroding the client-agency value equation – writes Ian Mackenzie of FCB/SIX

Simple. Here it is. 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. And it’s bad because it could be costing us some of our best people and our best ideas. Here’s how:

The simplicity bias perpetuates the digital/traditional divide

If advertising is obsessed with simplicity, and simplicity is good, where does that leave digital? Because digital is many things, but 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.

Bust this bias: Test drive a bias toward complexity instead. So, take extra and intentional effort to understand the technical details, the platforms and the inner workings of a digital project, even when it feels like it’s someone else’s job to do it.

It’s amazing how many opportunities are sitting in plain sight down there in the wires and the weeds, undiscovered because creative people have been told not to look there.

The simplicity bias gets in the way of the simple ideas it’s supposed to help us have

It’s a paradox. But many of the best, simple-looking digital ideas I’ve been a 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 mid-process, discovered through prototyping and iteration.

This may be 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 on their ability to appear simple at the outset.


Bust this bias: Instead of all-or-nothing, gate-based waterfall, experiment with agile-type working methods that favour iteration and prototyping. This’ll give a more complex idea a fighting chance to find its feet.

The simplicity bias is at odds with 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 non-dominant culture, for example, simple could be a metaphor or reference that looks abstract and over-complicated to the mainstream decision maker.

Point being, simple is subjective. And people who already have power also already have their own ideas around what simple is and what it looks like. Creative thinkers from diverse groups may need either to comply with the dogma, face rejection or risk their ideas not being heard in the first place.

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

The simplicity bias causes platform-grade systems thinkers to avoid or exit our 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 by-product of the simplicity bias? Hard to say.

But when we overweight our agencies on thinkers who put simplicity first, we may also be underweighting on more well-rounded, or even complexity-biased thinkers.

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

The simplicity bias likes 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.

Because 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 it comes to how 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 organisation’s challenges.

In this context, settling for simple solutions to simple problems risks eroding the client-agency value equation.

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

Of course, simple isn’t bad. Simple is 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.

Mackenzie says complexity needs to be embraced too

Ian Mackenzie is executive creative director of FCB/SIX in Toronto, Canada – and a version of this article was first published on Medium


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