On simplifying complexity

 

Eight a.m. last Tuesday morning, I had just completed my morning run on the beautiful Mont-Saint-Hilaire. It took me about an hour and it felt good. I felt relax and happy to take care of myself.

But, wait a minute. Something was really wrong. I had no clue how fast I went, how many kilometres I did or if I did better than my last run. And I did not post any data to Facebook. Am I crazy? I must download this app, be part of a community, be told how to run my next trail and improve my stats. And naturally share it with my friends. OMG, what am I waiting for? It’s so now. So hot – especially for me, a son of the Internet, a social media power user, an innovator at heart.

Well, thanks, but no thanks. See, I can run without an app and enjoy it. Who knew it could be possible?

I wrote in an earlier piece that technology is empowering us to innovate and change our lives for good – and I truly believe it can. That app I referenced could be great for someone training for a marathon or someone struggling to meet their goals. But I can’t stop thinking that we invent so much other artificial stuff, crap we think is good for us. Crap we take for granted. Crap we gave permission to, to shape our lives.

As a trained designer, an internet geek and a mad advertiser, I saw my craft evolve from sketching with colour pencils on a nice and big drawing table to inventing some wicked (if I do say so myself) branded and technologically-empowered live experiences. I had no remorse whatsoever to trash my table for a nice black and white Mac SE that cost me $5,000. I can tell you I made the best of it and it was a blast.

Until yesterday.

You see, yesterday I stopped doing what I was doing. For a brief moment (well, a year) I looked around me and talked to people and read lots (like that piece in strategy about this guy who sold his company because he felt advertising became so darn complicated).

I took some time to look at what we were doing collectively with our lives and within our lives. I looked at what we were doing in our craft and I saw complexity. I saw a desperate attempt to seduce and attract the masses and the individuals with new, improved, artificial marketing means, big and small. I saw virtual social platforms made to sell us stuff that have successfully become the true fabrics of our life, interlocked with it (with so much ease and with our full consent, I might add). No questions asked. Oh, maybe one. (Is your life better since the advent of video on your wall? I know, I know, maybe a little more socially guilt-free if you took the ALS challenge, but what else?)

I also saw old advertising agencies struggle to adjust for a new world made for digital agencies. I saw digital agencies, happy to take on this huge piece of cake, doing crazy cool stuff that lacked the fantastic efficiency of a simple VW ad made in the ’60s. I remember judging the very best cyber projects at Cannes and thinking, “Damn, this is all so fucking great, so many great experiences, we are the future all right, but what a pity that it all means next to nothing – that most of it poorly communicates whatever it was intended to.”

I can still think and say the same for a big part of today’s digital advertising. Too much of something is just not good enough.

Bad crap works. It’s a fundamental truth. Look everywhere.

I believe simplicity is the key to achieve better work. Not yesterday’s simplicity – I’m not reactionary, nor Luddite. But remember that amnesia is, and will remain, one of the great characteristics of humanity. We tend to forget everything, good and bad, and start over, repeating mistakes.

I choose to remember and build the future, my future on reinventing this revolutionary Bernbach idea of simplicity and honesty. An idea big enough to be embraced and re-engineered for today’s fast-pace, technologically-empowered society.

Don’t take me wrong. Simplicity does not exclude complex, back-end solutions. Look at Hans Wegner’s wishbone chair – itis complex to build, but it’s so pure in simplicity in the end. Complexity is not necessarily complicated.

As for honesty, well, I don’t think I will try to teach you lessons here. Just ask yourself if what you do is truly shaping our society in the right direction, if you are contributing to something bigger with the task at hand.

I know you are young and restless. But please don’t be reckless. Take a moment to contemplate this idea of simplicity and honesty. And question yourself whether or not we are on our own track or on someone else’s. Then, only then, we can together harness properly, job by job, idea by idea, this future of ours. Don’t be the blind that leads the blind. Seriously.

 

Published in Strategy Magazine, September 12, 2014

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