Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Deceptively simple - Pt 1

Some years ago I was involved in a planning session for a customer loyalty program. The particular tool we were using (I'm guessing something similar exists in most agencies) was a Path-To-Purchase type thing. Essentially, you attempt to identify every step, mental and physical, the prospect must take if they are to complete the transaction. Then you figure out the obstacle most likely at each stage to prevent them from proceeding to the next, and attempt to devise something to overcome each of these obstacles.

This was not the first time the client had done this exercise, but the aim this time was to "simplify" the model. In its previous incarnation, it had existed as two parallel diagrams, one mapping the customer's physical experience from the moment they walked in the store, the other mapping the process that began the moment the subject of the loyalty club was raised. To the client's mind, this was unneccesarily complicated. He wanted to collapse the two models into one, choosing the point at which the staff overture was most likely to be made as the starting point for the second process.

The model was internally consistent, but the distortions it imposed on the real-world experience of the shopper became more and more obvious as the session went along. For a start, it foreclosed discussion of the biggest question - when was the most effective time to tell the customer about the club - a concern that started creeping into every stage of the investigation and sending out its own little logic trees,each of which looked remarkably similar to the last. It also led to confusion about customer's motives - were they focussed on the transaction they'd come to complete, or the shiny prospect of the loyalty club?

The diagram grew denser, blacker, ever more convoluted.

Eventually, screwing up all the courage my three weeks in the business had given me, I stood up in front of the whiteboard and suggested it would be more useful if we split the process back into its original dual track.

Three clients. A junior planner. An account director, an account manager and me. Yet the room was uncomfortably silent, until the account manager said to me, in her best "let the grown ups talk" voice.

"Yes, but we're trying to make things simpler."

The rest of the room nodded sagely, and the session resumed.

The plea for simplicity in advertising is unanswerable. I think it probably should be. The logic seems sound - people are busy, distracted and uninterested, so if we want them to listen to us, we should strip our messages down to the bare essentials.

But the word "simple" seems to hold within it a number of often competing ideas. The one-track diagram was simple in one respect - it worked in one dimension and probably had fewer steps. The two-track diagram was more complex on the face of it, but at each step the working would have been shorter and clearer.

Perhaps it would be easier (and perhaps we could communicate with each other more clearly) if we identified what those ideas were.

I'm also not sure how far beyond the actual final communication the aesthetic of simplicity should extend. Is there any reason (besides making it easy for the client to grasp and quick for them to complete) why a planning model should strive to attain it? What (and I know this is at least a bit heretical) about a brief?

1 comment:

Jason Lonsdale said...

Simplicity can be very useful, but, in striving for it, people often end up being simplistic instead.

De Bono has written a great book on the subject (

Further, 'agency models' can often be more of a hindrance than a help -after all, a model should be built to describe the real world situation, and a prescribed model is unlikely to be universal. Worst case scenario, every problem becomes a nail...w