ALL COMMUNICATION IS OVER-SIMPLIFICATION

Years ago Leagas Delaney did a great Christmas card.
But they didn’t do it for their own ad agency.
They did it for Lewis Silkin, a firm of solicitors.
On the front was printed a very simple message.
“MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR.”
Then next to each word was a handwritten comment.
Each one in different solicitor’s handwriting.
Next to MERRY was written:
“Could have connotations of over-indulgence, possibly drunkenness. Risk of encouraging irresponsible behaviour.”
Next to CHRISTMAS was written:
“Definition too specific, potentially confrontational. Risk of offending other religions or even the secular.”
Next to AND was written:
“Presumes both occasions only exist as a pair, precluding possible enjoyment as individual celebrations.”
Next to A was written:
“Non-specific about which New Year: western, Chinese, Hindu, pagan. Consequently not time specific or relevant to season.”
Next to NEW was written:
“Strictly speaking we can’t claim New. This is simply a modification of previous years. At best a variation, potentially a repeat. ”
Next to YEAR was written
“Years vary according to measurement: lunar or atomic. Need to define terms, also address leap-year issue.”
I love that card because it’s an extreme version of how lawyers think.
And, because it’s extreme, we can laugh at it.
But actually it demonstrates something much more important.
Without simplicity we can’t have communication.
Everything would get too complicated.
If we tried to define, to refine, to address every possible variant in meaning, we’d never get past the first word.
We couldn’t even say “Good morning.”
First we’d have to define ‘good’.
Do we mean good in the sense of moral rectitude?
Or good in the sense of well made?
Or good in the sense of nourishing?
Or in the sense of value-for-money, or well behaved?
And in relation to what?
Better than yesterday, better than tomorrow?
How can we know?
Who’s to judge?
By what right do we presume to be the authority?
Does ‘good’ mean better than we expected?
Better than some people are having in other parts of the world?
Better than we deserve?
Or exactly right?
In which case, is good the same as ‘perfect’ or merely ‘not as bad as it could have been’?
We could go on for a day about the word ‘good’ before we even start on the word ‘morning’.
And we would have accomplished nothing by being too pedantic.
See, in the real world, we don’t need to define every single term before we use it.
We don’t need to be so accurate in our language.
Because we all actually know what ‘good morning’ means.
‘Good morning’ is actually the verbal equivalent of a nod and a smile.
That’s all.
So we don’t have to analyse it.
That’s how most people live their lives.
And, in our business, that’s who we deal with: most people.
Because the world we work in is mass communication.
Not one-on-one.
We’ve got a split-second to get noticed.
A split-second to be relevant.
A split-second to be remembered.
Even if we have all day to debate it, the public don’t.
They don’t know, they don’t care.
Even the people in advertising, who spend all day splitting hairs about every dot-and-comma of every sentence in advertising.
When they leave the office they revert to being normal human beings.
And they ignore 90% of all the advertising around them.
Just like everyone else.
Unless we know how it works, we can’t do it properly.
It’s called Semiotics.
The science of signs: of language.
Because that’s all language is: signs.
It isn’t the actual thing itself.
Language is just something we all understand, pointing us towards the meaning.
That’s what Magritte meant with his famous painting of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe”.
Our mind looks at it and thinks “How can he say that’s not a pipe? Of course it’s a pipe.”
But of course it isn’t a pipe: it’s a painting of a pipe.
That’s what Magritte meant.
Language isn’t the thing.
As Seneca said “The word ‘dog’ never bit anyone.”
There is a place of course for extreme accuracy in language.
Science, medicine, the law.
In those fields people need to take infinite pains to be totally clear to each other.
Not roughly, but exactly.
But the field we work in isn’t that.

To do our job effectively, we must stop confusing the two.

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    beautiful.

    Happy New Year Dave, Kevin, Chris et al.

    I know I’m late, but here’s wishing you all a fantastic 2011.

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    ‘Because the world we work in is mass communication. Not one-on-one.’ Dave, surely the world u work in IS one-on-ones who, through the use of the medias, become the mass. i.e. u r talking to lots of one persons. Hey, ain’t as stupid as I look, am I?

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    Hi Grilla,
    I meant in the context of simplicity v complexity.
    The Sun sells 3+ million copies and has 10 million readers.
    As two individuals, you and I can debate the point for hours over a pint.
    We can clear up issues as we go, answer questions, clarify misunderstandings, elucidate minor details.
    I can’t have 10 million individual debates when I run an ad in The Sun.

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    Every year I can’t wait for the cards to hit the floor like a fresh, wet Plaice. It is rather alarming how everyone thinks they are original.

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    In creative communication does exceptionally high intelligence become a disability?

    If ‘intellects’ tend to see all the challenges, alternatives, problems and issues that stand in the way of accomplishing an objective then this would probably play out two ways. They either become paralysed by the options and never make a decision, or they attempt to settle each and every issue, no matter how tangential. Either way, the result is that the objective becomes unduly complicated and any attempt to achieve it, needlessly convoluted.

    On the other hand the more simple-minded tends to focus only on the objective and the simple steps needed to achieve it. In short, the intelligent sees the things that are complicated and the smart sees the things that are simple.

    In reality, big things are accomplished by simply doing simple things.

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    Be suspicious of humility that has to be announced

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    This is good.

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    John,
    It’s because stupid people are impressed by comlicated things.
    The truth is you have to go beyond complicated to get to simple.
    The quality of thinking is inversely proportional to the length of words used.

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    Hi Dave,

    A great blog, although I have to say that the Christmas card in question was done by the team here at The Partners and not Leagas Delaney.

    Really appreciate the mention of the work though, it’s one that we’re still very proud of.

    Thanks

    Helen (The Partners)

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    Dave, that sounds like an invitation to buy me a drink :-p

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    great post Mr T and as Mr Meerkat would say ‘it’s simples’ 🙂

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    Helen, the best Christmas card the Partners did was I think from before I was born but I saw it once and remembered it, Ho Ho Ho. My best one was from my mother. It said. Merry Birthday Christmas.

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    Can we have a Dave Trott statue on the 4th plinth? Ruddy well deserved…

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    Soapy, Meerkat invariably says “simples”

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    Sorry Helen,
    Ben Millar already told me off on Twitter for getting that wrong.
    All these years I’ve thought it was Leagas Delaney.
    If I’d been a client I would have given them my account on the strength of that.
    Lucky I never congratulated Tim on it.

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    Grilla, do I detect a little ad animal envy?

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    Quite Dave,

    Sorry for not having more time to be concise.

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    Quite Dave,

    Sorry for not having more time to be concise.

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    No worries at all Dave
    It certainly helped us win work at the time as well as cementing our reputation for using wit in our work, which is something we’re still well known for now.
    I’m hoping Tim would have admitted it wasn’t them if you had congratulated them*…

    (*I’m sure he would)

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    Hi Helen,
    I’m sure Tim would have admitted it, but I doubt if he’d have been very pleased.
    “Of all the work you’ve done Tim, I tell you what I really like: the Lewis Silkin Christmas card.”

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    I’m not @ all envious, Soapy. I’m actually pleased for the furry little guy because the furry little guys of this world make it softer under foot for us furry bigger guys.

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    Brevity. Always.

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    Eschew obfuscation.

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    Happy New Year to You All!
    The best Christmas Cards I’ve ever had are the ones where the cash falls out when you open them!

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    I love this card but can you recycle it for Clearcast next year!

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    Spot on Dave, and never more so than when writing Google Adwords ads . . . and before anyone scoffs, just think, what other direct response medium demands you to be so precise with the words you use?

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    Indeed.

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    Genius.