Campaign India Team
Apr 21, 2010

Michael Follett's blog: Stop complicating, start simplifying

Apparently, half of all 12-17 year-old Americans have created content on the web. This is no new development. As early as 2005, the respected Pew ‘Internet and American Life Project’ found that 57% of American teens were web ‘content creators’. This is an incredible statement. Unbelievable. Unthinkable.

Michael Follett's blog: Stop complicating, start simplifying

Apparently, half of all 12-17 year-old Americans have created content on the web. This is no new development. As early as 2005, the respected Pew ‘Internet and American Life Project’ found that 57% of American teens were web ‘content creators’. This is an incredible statement. Unbelievable. Unthinkable.

Does it mean that at least half of America’s youth are poets, writers, designers, artists, film-makers or musicians? Is this evidence of a new ‘creative culture’ where people will stop being ‘consumers’ and start being ‘producers’?

Well, no. If you look a bit closer at the data, it means that 57% of American teens have posted some ‘content’ on the web. But ‘content’ is defined as ‘uploading stuff to the web’. And ‘stuff’ includes (but is not limited to) Facebook entries, MySpace pages, Flickr photos and YouTube  films of kids doing wheelies on their bikes taken on their mobile phones. This isn’t evidence of an efflorescence of creativity. This is kids doing what they have always done, just using a new technology to do it.

The problem here is the word ‘content’. It’s been used in this context to mean ‘everything’ – a categorical definition that erases all differences between the various things that these kids are uploading. But when a word can mean everything, it really means nothing. ‘Content’ is an imprecise, lazy word, a formless blanket of a word that is thrown over sentences, obscuring their meaning. It isn’t a useful word, yet it gets used all the time.

‘Content’ isn’t alone. Our industry delights in the production of unhelpful neologisms. How did we end up referring to media plans as being ‘holistic’? When I was growing up, holism described what mystics in the Himalayas aimed for, not the idea that a brand’s print and TV ads should look and feel the same.  When did ‘aperture’ migrate from meaning ‘opening’ to meaning ‘a time when we can invade someone’s personal space with a commercial message’? Does anyone actually ‘interact’ with their friends and family? Who, honestly, thought that the phrase ‘media-neutral’ was a good idea? Please can someone find the man who invented the term ‘media agnostic’. And kick him.

These words and phrases aren’t bad just because they are inaccurate and inelegant, though given that we are professional communicators that would be reason enough in itself.  It’s not just that they convey bad ideas, but also that they inhibit good ideas. The sloppy, stupid phraseology of modern advertising is like a rather mundane echo of ‘newspeak’. When George Orwell invented the idea of newspeak in his novel 1984, the true horror of the idea wasn’t that the state-approved vocabulary promoted one type of idea, but it prevented people thinking other ideas. It was a language ‘deliberately designed to reduce the range of thought’. If people didn’t have the words to describe contrary opinions, there would be no ‘thoughtcrime’. But at least Big Brother knew what he was doing. We seem to be blundering towards a smaller, stupider world without even realizing it.

Because let’s look at the possibilities if we stop using a word like ‘content’. How rich and exciting our descriptions of the world are when we just say what we mean. “Our website needs content.” No, it doesn’t. It needs interesting videos that will teach girls how to put make up on. “We need branded content for TV.” Nonsense. What we need is a TV show in which Shah Rukh Khan does cool things with his mobile phone to show people what’s possible using our product. “Our baby formula needs mobile content, and needs it now.” Calm down. What you really need is a text message that gives mums some helpful advice when they are alone with their child. 

Using a word like ‘content’ not only drains the meaning out of a sentence. It drains the possibility of meaning. It prevents you from seeing the possibilities that might result from a sentence. It’s not just poor communication. It is anti-communication.

But there is wisdom in language, even in stupid language. If we interrogate these words, we may not learn much about the world, but we will learn a lot about ourselves, and our insecurities. And we may even learn something that may help us get better in the future.

The first thing to note is that all these phrases try to sound scientific. Abstract or conceptual words tend to replace ordinary, real descriptors. Communications are described in systematic or structural terms, rather than as a process or a story. Such ‘sophistication’ is not necessarily an improvement. For instance, for some reason, people are now misapplying the word ‘ecosystem’ to describe the way in which the communications that a brand pays for are mixed in with all the rest of the stuff that gets said about a brand by consumers and commentators. This sounds very nuanced, but isn’t actually very helpful. Ecosystems, when they are working properly, don’t change much. But we want things to change. That’s why our clients pay us money – to change things. A better, though less glamorous, analogy would be a conversation. Brands talking to their customers, customers talking to their brands, and to each other about their brands, and about a whole bunch of other stuff. Conversations can and do change, and more importantly, are changed by their participants. And they can be changed for the better of everyone involved in the conversation. If a brand starts saying and doing things that get a good response in their ‘conversation’ with their customers, then everyone wins. When someone or something changes an ‘ecosystem’, we usually have Greenpeace up in arms. But even though the (rather ordinary) conversation metaphor is more useful, we are drawn like moths to a flame by all this talk of ‘ecosystems’. 

Why is this? I think it’s because we think that in order to be taken seriously, we have to sound serious. This is, frankly, bollocks. If you want to be taken seriously, they you have to do serious things. Adopting the trappings of seriousness without actually doing anything worthwhile is to make us look like sorcerer’s apprentices, saying the spells, without making the magic. We should concentrate on making a real difference to our clients businesses; when we do that, we’ll get the respect that we deserve.

Secondly, all these words sound very complicated. This is not accidental. Complexity connotes consequence. If it looks very difficult, then it must be very important, and probably very expensive. But I direct you, gentle reader, to the Guinness Book of World Records, a book full of people who have achieved extremely difficult - and extremely useless - accomplishments. Just because something is difficult doesn’t make something useful. For that matter, just because something is easy doesn’t make it useful either. Something’s useful when it’s useful. Let’s start by looking at how we can be useful to our client’s businesses, and we can deal with the relative complexity or simplicity of the solution that results later.

This urge to over-complicate isn’t just an attempt to bamboozle the market. It helps us build up a rather appealing picture of ourselves. It’s quite nice to think that we do a very difficult job, developing involved and intricate solutions to intractable problems. But the problem is that we don’t. When we do our jobs well, we create simplicity and clarity. If we produce something that’s hard to understand, then we haven’t done our jobs very well. The fact that we want to make our jobs sound complicated suggests that we don’t understand what our job is.

And that brings us to my final observation. All this pseudo-scientific, obfuscatory, convoluted vocabulary describes the various ways that brands send messages to their potential consumers. The underlying assumption of this type of language is that we exist as an industry to convey messages from brands to their buyers. Hence the prevalence of terms that describe the form of communication divorced from its meaning. Hence a vocabulary that describes the delivery of messages, without analyzing the result of those messages. Hence, finally, a professional language that describes the ‘ballistics’ of communication rather than the ‘pyrotechnics’ of results. And I dare say that some people in the advertising industry do think in this way. They’ll tell you that we’re paid to communicate stuff. But I don’t think that’s what our job is. And more importantly, I don’t think that’s what our clients pay us to do.

We are in the business of developing creative solutions to business problems. What we do is understand a client’s brand and business, understand their consumers’ needs, and try and find a way of bringing these two parties together to the advantage of both. TV ads or websites or standees are just some of the ways we can do this, but they aren’t the only ones available to us.  If we can find a creative way to solve a client’s brief, then that’s fair game.

And if that’s what we do, then we need to stop talking about ‘content’, ‘apertures’, and ‘interactions’. We need to start talking about ‘value’ and ‘usefulness’ and ‘helpfulness’. We need to stop thinking about how we can reach people and start thinking about how we can attract people. And we need to stop complicating and start simplifying. We have to start saying what we mean.

Michael Follett is senior VP - strategy and planning, DDB Mudra.

Campaign India