Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is there sense in simplicity?

Why is ‘simplicity in advertising’ ridiculed, neglected, overlooked, rejected and generally considered “unfashionable?” 4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri takes a close-up...

I have this pal (lets call him Danny), who is a hot-shot Creative Director in one of the marquee agencies in Mumbai. Sophisticated, witty, smart, friend Dan is also well-respected by both, his peers and clients. However, whenever we talk of the KISS (keep it simple, stupid!), Dan gets into epilepsy mode! “Hey, what’s with you guys, going wow about ads that are so understated, low-key and... okay, I’ll say it – simple! What’s the big deal? Simplicity in advertising is a contradiction in terms, buddy. The business is about being sassy, clever, shrewd and manipulative, remember? How else will you get the poor sucker to hotfoot it to your product and not theirs? Through Gandhigiri? It was a Bollywood-ism that struck an emotional chord in the junta, but hey, wanna check it out in the market place? Simplicity in advertising sucks, stinks and is a definite no-no. It might have worked pre-independence – but today? You’re in the wrong biz, dude!”

That was good ‘ol Danny boy. However, people slightly more evolved than Shri Danny – De Bono, Bernbach, Ray, Van Gogh – have always championed this cause, convinced that its much easier to be complex than simple. My belief is that if simplicity – in every walk of life – appears neglected, forgotten or is deemed unfashionable, it is largely due to the fact that the primary obviousness of the word ‘simple’ misleads people into believing that to be simple is to be old-fashioned, dull, boring...

Fact is, nothing is further from the truth. In these insanely information-overkill times, the bottomline is frighteningly clear: The more information you put in your ad, the less people will take out. Remember, add-vertising can be very confusing and simplicity could be that brilliant device with the cutting message that, to subtract is to be more effective! And you don’t have to look too far, gentle reader. All the greatest messages in the world are astonishingly simple, direct and one-dimensional: I Love You; Just Do It; Don’t Walk; Thou Shalt Not Kill; I’ll Be Back...

There is another reason why simplicity is frequently given a short-shrift and kept in the deep freeze. One needs a high degree of self-assurance and self-confidence to celebrate something as un-glamorous, non-happening and straightforward as simplicity. To most, simple is equal to naiveté, artlessness or unworldliness. With a consumer-driven India positioned as the next super power, hi-faultin’ complexity and jargons are the mantras of the day and seen to be the new commandments, hymned, celebrated and writ in stone... only to crack, evaporate and disappear very soon!

In the communications business, amazingly one of the dumbest mistakes even the big daddyies continually make, is of overlooking the basic credo of the trade: In as much, it’s not what you say, but what they hear and understand.
Theatre Director Feroze Khan (Tumhari Amrita, Salesman Ramlal) agrees, “Simplicity is undoubtedly the crucial and strategic driver of all meaningful communication. Whether its ‘Mere paas Maa Hain’, ‘Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola’, ‘Bole toh’, ‘Mamu’, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’, ‘Dimaag Ki Batti Jala De’ or ‘Sar Utha Ke Jiyo’... time and again, it has proved to be a thumping winner.” The reason is simple. Khan believes that in the battle between the heart and mind, communication that woos the former, are more likely to strike the target because it is one-dimensional, understands essence and is devoid of distracting layers. He points towards the Munnabhai films – especially Lage Raho – as a classic case in point. “In an age of the obscenely-budgeted, glossy multi-starrer extravaganzas, celebrating pop-patriotism to a suckered NRI target audience, here comes a film that dares to propagate (seemingly old-fashioned) Gandhian principles, in a disarmingly engaging and entertaining manner... and look what happened? It has turned out to be the number one box-office hit of the year, re-affirming that when a simple message – powered with passion, truth, conviction and self-belief – emerges from one heart, chances are, it will find easy access to another.”

Ad-man Shobuj Sengupta (Bates Enterprise, Delhi) presents another perspective, “I am tempted to say that ad agencies and creative people have not really lost sight, interest or faith in the power of simplicity in advertising but, in recent times, the bogey of research has hi-jacked the initiative. The “Process” – a la Chappel! – seems to be calling the shots making life quite terrible! Add to that the aggressive assault of Mr. Know-all Client (who has just defected from an agency and believes that he is truly the cats whiskers) and the confusion really gets confounded with simplicity is the first casualty.” Seema Sethi, the dynamic boss lady of Seema Sethi Design, ends the debate intelligently tempering logic with insight. “I think at the end of the day, it’s a personal call. For me, simplicity – both in life and work – remains a precious commodity to be safeguarded and nurtured at all cost.”

However, she believes, that it must be recognised even by the staunchest of puritans, that (like many things in life) the concept of simplicity keeps changing. It hits the re-defining and re-invention button in sync with the ever-shifting sociological mores. “Khadi, for example, was never meant to symbolise a fashion statement. It was a fabric of protest created under turbulent circumstances, envisioned by the ‘Father of the nation’. Today, both in India and abroad, Khadi is sexy, ramp-material: Glam catwalk-stuff, firing new-age designers to dream up newer ensembles and clotheslines celebrating the stuff!” she points out. So, go with the flow guys – keep it simple and straight from the heart, or cock a snook at simplicity, if you will... only make sure you don’t lose the essence.