Simplicity gives creatives wings
A view from Ian Heartfield

Simplicity gives creatives wings

If you do nothing more than just keep it simple, you will lift your work above the vast majority of the other dross out there, says BBH London's creative chief.

As a creative, you slave away at your craft for years. A combination of hard work and being in the right place at the right time means you rise through the ranks and eventually make it to somewhere near the so-called top of an advertising agency. 

It’s then you find out that the vast majority of the skills you need now bear little or no resemblance to the skills you fine-tuned to get you here in the first place.  

So it came as an enormous sense of relief when I discovered that at least one of the principles to the way I approach creative work is also relevant to the task of helping to lead an agency. Thank fuck for that, only 999 skills left to learn.

This principle is simplicity. Calling it a principle sounds a little grand in the cold light of a Campaign article, but it is a long-held belief of mine and a basic guiding light of most great advertising campaigns, in any medium. Keep it simple, distil the message right down and let it cut through and make an impact. 

If you do nothing more than just keep it simple, you will lift your work above the vast majority of the other dross out there, it will stand out against all the sponsored wallpaper that plasters our surroundings and our screens. Then all you have to do is make it something no-one has ever seen before and you’re basically there. Admittedly, that last bit is a lot easier said than done.

I was delighted to realise that this basic principle applies to other things, too. The agency process, client interactions, paper-towel dispensing in the gents – basically everything that happens within these four walls. If something is complicated, it saps much-needed energy, and energy is the most precious thing of all in this modern agency world we find ourselves in. That, and ideas.

But the agency situation is complicated, you say. Of course it is. You have a massive holding company breathing down your neck, the client that pays all your wages is getting wobbly, you’re attempting to re-build the plane while flying it. Just think the same way you do when you get that complicated brief that you should reject but can’t be bothered to "debate" any more with the planner – sift through all the different messages and choose the one that you want people to follow. The key word in that sentence is "one".

It’s the same with big client presentations. Think you’re busy? The chances are that your chief marketer will be 10 times busier than you are. Don’t give them 34 slides to get to one idea, don’t even give them 10, give them just three.

Slides are exhausting, even the ones that look pretty or ingeniously move to illustrate the point. Our attention spans are shrinking faster than Gen Z Facebook sign-ups, so adjust accordingly. Cut to the chase. Don’t fill the time for the sake of it. Give your chief marketer the two things he or she wants more than anything else that day: an idea to make them famous and some time back in their diary.

This thought went one stage further the other day when I was talking to our own resident knight of the realm, Sir Nigel Bogle. We realised that when you come across simplicity in an idea, in a process, in a structure, even in an office layout, it’s a shot in the arm, it’s a very real energy boost. When you hear something that’s simple and straightforward to carry out, you immediately want to carry it out, to physically get up off your backside and go and do it. You actually feel it.

We need our agencies to be action-oriented, things need to be happening, things need to be being made left, right and centre, 24-7. There isn’t time to theorise or discuss any more, we just need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. 

Simplicity gives you the actual, tangible, physical energy you need to make these things happen. Simplicity gives you wings. 

Ian Heartfield is the joint executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London.