Lessons from a 13th century English Friar to media agencies in 2021

Sometimes simple is best, argues Kaimera chief strategy officer Stewart Gurney.

The desire for simplicity is ancient and deeply rooted in our psychology. It is especially evident during times in which society undergoes upheaval. During periods of change we yearn for the familiar and the easily explainable, our brains are wired in a way that craves simplicity and dislikes difficulty. Yet media agencies continue to thrive on complexity. Complicated jargon, lots of different numbers, endless PowerPoint slides. We continue to make it hard for ourselves and our clients. For Media agencies to take advantage of the changes we’ve seen in the last year and evolve, we must get better at embracing the power of simplicity.

In the Middle Ages a Franciscan Friar named William of Ockham famously argued that “It is useless to do with more what can be done with few”. Occam’s Razor, or the law of parsimony, is the principle that: all things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than complex ones.

For example, there are millions of ‘possible’ reasons why someone might click on a banner ad, ranging from their hand slipped, to they were forced to do it by aliens. Instead of having to empirically prove/disprove each possibility, the simplest solution – ‘they clicked on it because they wanted to get to what was offered’ – is the most probable explanation. Occam’s Razor is a useful way to explain our natural inclination for simplicity.

Historically, complexity has been beneficial for media agencies. It has been used as a way to justify value and, in some cases, used as a smokescreen to hide less than savoury trading practices.

We still hold onto the legacy of complexity. When agency remuneration is inherently linked to ‘time’ we feel the need to justify our value by throwing every single data point, every bit of research and every metric we can get our hands on at our clients. In the digital age we develop hugely complicated data tools and processes that ‘look’ impressive but are largely time consuming, complex, and underutilised.

The reality is complexity holds us back. It gives permission for clients to put things into the too-hard basket, it crushes innovation and erodes long-term trust and respect. No-one likes that icky feeling when they feel like they are being played. Complexity can create mistrust and confusion.

The reality is the technical requirements and processes involved in media planning and implementation are complex. However, they don’t have to be as complicated as we like to make out. Simplicity takes expertise and time. Both of which are scarce in media land. It takes experience to make things simple and craft a relevant and interesting story. As Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

So, simply put: simplicity is better. It’s better for the following reasons:

  1. Simplicity is easily repeatable. For many local marketers, without the luxury of big teams or in house media experts, media is less than 5% of their job. Our role as agencies should be to relieve their mental load, not add to it. When our clients have to present media plans further up into their businesses, complex solutions are harder to explain and therefore meet more barriers. Simple thinking travels.
  2. Simplicity drives innovation. When we’ve come up with an interesting media solution, the temptation is always to over justify. This is new; therefore, I need to explain away all conceivable doubts. This never works. When presented with something complex, the brain often rejects it for a simpler alternative or reaffirms an existing belief. “We’ve always done it this way. This new way looks too complex”. This cognitive bias is called ‘The overkill backfire effect’. In reality, a simple argument with clear concise evidence will help any innovation get over the line.
  3. Simplicity is human shaped. Digital, data and technology are huge opportunities for marketers, yet their complexity is often confronting. They are best deployed when they are simple to use and intuitive. We should be creating digital/data led solutions that instinctive and consumer-centric. Machines may be limitless in their capabilities to understand complexity, but humans are not.

There is a lot that media agencies could learn from William of Ockham. We need a new type of media agency. One that can move away from the legacy of complexity. One that helps clients to untangle complexity and create effective and simple media solutions.

Stewart Gurney is the chief strategy officer of Kaimera.


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