The Best Ad Solutions Aren't the Simplest Ones

Viewpoint: Why Madison Avenue Needs to Embrace Complexity

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Matt Herrmann
Matt Herrmann
Being from Oklahoma, I think I know a thing or two about the end of the world. Where I'm from we have our fair share of citizens who believe that the end of times is right around the corner. One of the most popular bumper stickers in my high school parking lot read "Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned."

I've noticed an uptick in recent discussion about how the world will end. One popular explanation of our imminent destruction is based in the theories of those who claim that we have sewn the seeds of our downfall in the complexity of our civilization. Led by cultural anthropologists such as Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies," their thesis is, roughly, that while you may enjoy your iPhone very much, the ornate sophistication that is a requirement of a civilization that can produce such a magical talisman will crush that same civilization under weight of its own bureaucracy.

In other words, you may complain about AT&T coverage now, but very soon lamenting the occasional dropped call will give way to wondering about the nutritional value of the device.

The speed of media fragmentation and innovation means that our jobs, never easy, are more complex every day. I get flop sweat every time I'm reminded that Twitter was launched at SXSW in 2007. Repent! The end is near!

So is this not an original idea? One helpful distinction currently being discussed by people such as Brenda Zimmerman at the Schulich School of Business in Ontario is the difference between the complicated and the complex. Complicated tasks have many interlocking steps, but the path is generally predictable. Complex tasks, on the other hand, require dense, layered coordination with many unknown variables in a fluid environment of constant change. Manufacturing an airplane is a complicated job, but forecasting demand for Boeing is a complex task.

In advertising, some of our tasks are complicated. Analyzing a consumer segment, producing a commercial, building a microsite -- by and large, as an industry, we're pretty good at these. However, when the situation becomes more fluid, we become less effective. Beta-testing unproven media, microtargeting and aggregating smaller consumer groups, coming up with multiple ideas instead of one overarching brand religion -- these are tasks that require a comfort with and embracing of complexity that must be cultivated.

Some things we should be thinking about in this vein:

Can we find multiple paths to a brand communication solution instead of only one? In a complex world of constant change, a brand has to be able to cover the roulette table with lots of small bets instead of one big bet. Spreading the solution set gives better odds that we'll find and exploit the next Twitter.

Could we create faster solutions if we executed prototypes of those ideas in-house? An overemphasis on the complicated means that we rely too much on third-party production specialists to execute all of our ideas. Clearly no agency can execute all components of a campaign to scale in-house, but what could we accomplish if our goal was to experiment more with working prototypes?

Can we support those multiple paths with a strategic framework that can accommodate and motivate those executions? Most agency strategic processes are reductionist in nature, relentlessly cutting off paths and sometimes oversimplifying the answer in favor of neatness and conceptual symmetry. What would happen if we kept things messy? What if we challenged ourselves to determine how long a process could explore multiple strategic ideas?

What mix of ROI determines which of these ideas is winning and which should be cut off? This is maybe the hardest question. Someone told me their favorite client brief is "I want an incredibly innovative idea that's never been done before, and three examples of where it's worked in the past." This is going to require even more transparency between clients and agencies than we have now, and a nuanced understanding of the relative and specific contribution of each piece of communication. This should lead to the acknowledgment that not every piece of the marketing mix is meant to immediately drive to a sale. Of course increased revenue is the ultimate goal of every campaign, but the path and time horizon for that revenue will be different and dependent on the idea.

And of course, we need to do all this with the understanding that not everything we do is complex; we can't forget how to be good at the merely complicated.

We can probably all agree that while in this business we welcome the simple, we don't need to plan for it. Ten years from now, we'll probably look back and realize that the advertising apocalypse crowd might have been a bit overheated. But one thing we can be sure of is that things won't be any easier. While clarity will always be critical, oversimplification can sand off edges that might lead somewhere more interesting. So instead of always defaulting to simplicity, let's get messy and mine the morass of the complex.

Matt Herrmann serves as chief strategy officer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann West.
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