Simple is Smart. Complicated is Stupid: Dave Trott at BrightonSEO

Rosie Neill

Written by Rosie Neill

6 mins

30th September 2019

It would be an understatement to say I was excited when I heard the keynote speaker at this month’s BrightonSEO would be Dave Trott. I’ve been a big fan of his blogs and books for years.

Of course, he didn’t disappoint!

In true Dave style, he was blunt, straight to the point, and spoke complete sense. He delivered a powerful 30-minute presentation about why simple is smart and complicated is stupid – particularly when it comes to marketing. Here are the highlights.

89% of Adverts are Forgotten

It’s a worrying but not overly surprising statistic. 89% of adverts aren’t noticed or remembered. According to Dave, that’s approximately £18.5bn flushed down the drain every year in the UK by so-called “experts”!

So, what are the experts doing wrong? It’s simple really. They think that complicated is clever. They like to impress each other with complicated language to show they know all the long words and the latest acronyms, jargon and terminology.

The problem is that complicated doesn’t work for your audience. They will immediately tune out. If you are not absolutely clear and simple in your communications, then you’re part of the 89% that isn’t noticed or remembered. You see, complicated only works in presentations with other people who like complicated stuff. It falls flat in the real world.

One of the things I particularly liked about Dave’s talk was all the quotes he included from other thought-leaders. For example, Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it to an 11-year-old, you haven’t really understood it yourself.”

We think complexity proves that we’re intelligent, but it doesn’t. In reality, it proves that we don’t know how to go beyond complexity to simplify something. Marketers often start with something simple and make it complicated. But, as Dave put directly, any idiot can make something complicated! To be effective, you need to start with complicated and make it simple.

“What I’ve learned is smart is simple and complicated is stupid.” – Dave Trott

Blame It on Technology

According to Dave, the problem of overcomplicating has occurred because technology has replaced thinking. Technology has developed faster and faster over the years; the result is that there’s no time to think anymore. Instead, all of our time is spent desperately trying to keep the pace with new technology.

Rory Sutherland said: “We spend so much time thinking about how marketing, social media and direct mail work, that we’ve taken our eye off the more important question of how do people work?” We’ve become so distracted by technology that we’re not even talking to people anymore. It’s no wonder that 89% of what we do doesn’t work!

Everything’s always changing, said Dave. Be it technology, media, and channels. But the one thing that doesn’t ever change is the consumer. We should pay them more attention.

dave trott at brightonseo

Who Doesn’t Want to Go Viral?

Dave vocalised what we all know to be true: all good marketers want to go viral. And to go viral, all you have to have is a great idea.

It’s time to face the facts: a bad idea doesn’t become a good idea because you’ve presented it in a unique way, using an interesting technique. If it’s a bad idea, it will always remain a bad idea.

Dave’s definition of viral is synonymous with word-of-mouth (more about this here). He used the example of Greensleeves. Everyone knows the tune; it’s even used by ice cream vans. So, where did Greensleeves come from? You might not know that Henry VIII actually wrote it for Anne Boleyn!

Now, this was long, long, long before Facebook and YouTube, yet it still went viral. Greensleeves has been spread by word-of-mouth from generation to generation, showing that a good idea will go viral regardless of the media that it’s shared on.

There wasn’t even any electricity back when Greensleeves was created; there was barely any printing! Yet, if your idea is good, it will be shared. Your audience will use whatever is around and available to them to share it with others. Don’t worry about the sharing part. You just need to have a great idea.

To Have a Great Idea, You’ve Got to Understand People

The thing is, you can’t possibly understand the difference between a good and a bad idea unless you understand people and how they work.

The good news is that people don’t change. Bill Bernbach, one of the three founders of DDB Worldwide, described human understanding as simple, timeless human truths. Marketers should use these human truths to communicate with their audience.

Simple, Timeless Human Truths

The simple, timeless human truths are that every human interaction, from which we want a result, has to have three elements to it. And they have to be in this order:

  • Impact – we have to get the other’s attention
  • Communication – we have to tell them what we want to happen
  • Persuasion – we have to give them a reason for why it should happen

Dave’s example was simple; say you’re watching TV and you want your partner to make you a cup of tea. There are three steps to achieving this:

  • First, you have to get their attention – e.g. say their name
  • Then, you have to communicate what you want to happen – e.g. ask them to make you a cup of tea
  • Finally, you have to give them a reason to do it – e.g. tell them that you’ll take the bins out when your programme finishes as long as they make you a cup of tea now

dave trott brightonseo understanding people

Don’t Overcomplicate!

The difference is that most marketers overcomplicate the communication stage. For example, an advert would probably describe the cup of tea as “warm”, “refreshing”, “smooth”, rather than just calling it what it is: a cup of tea. This would just be odd in face-to-face interaction. Human beings get straight to the point, while marketers overcomplicate things. Just say it simply, exactly as it is.

“Creative people have a fear of the obvious, but they must sell their work to people who have a love of the obvious.” – Rory Sutherland

Repositioning for Impact: The Importance of Being Different

“ ‘People must notice this advertising’ is the most important sentence in any brief. But it’s never written on any brief.” – Dave Trott

Think back to that initial statistic: 89% of advertising isn’t noticed or remembered. In other words, the impact stage fails. And if you’ve got no impact, then you’ve got no chance of achieving what you want to.

To understand how to have an impact, Dave says that we first need to better understand the human mind.

He referred to Gestalt, a school of psychology about how our mind programmes itself. According to Gestalt, our minds are pattern-making machines. The mind is programmed to look for commonalities and group things together. On the other hand, it will remember things that are totally different.

We could say that, essentially, marketers and advertisers are trying to buy “real estate” in the mind. The way to do this is to avoid being overlooked as a commonality or a trend; you need to be different.

You Don’t Have to Be Liked

It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to be liked. A marketer’s job is not to do something that people like. It’s to do something that they will remember.

Dave talked about how it’s easy to think of an advert that you like but that you can’t remember what it was for. According to Rob Levenson, the test is to find an advert you love and then take the product out. If you still love it, it’s a lousy ad. Sure, it’s a nice piece of creative but it’s not an effective advert.

This is where the real opportunity lies:

  • 4% of advertising is remembered positively
  • 7% is remembered negatively

Strategy is Sacrifice – Key Takeaway from BrightonSEO

“Strategy is sacrifice.” – David Ogilvy

Dave rounded off his talk with this quote from David Ogilvy and the advice that all marketers should refer back to it when they have something complicated that they’re trying to simplify. Think about it when you’re alone at your desk and when you’re in a meeting where everyone is trying to pack in as many ideas as possible.

He finished with a powerful scenario from John Pearce of Collett Dickenson Pearce (now part of Dentsu). Pearce used to say that if you throw the consumer 10 tennis balls, they will only be able to catch one (and that’s if you’re lucky!). The problem with this is that the odds are 9:1 that it will be the wrong tennis ball they catch…

After the event, you’re only going to look back and wish you had thrown the right tennis ball. Since you’re bothering to put the effort in at all, you should have thrown only the one ball that it’s essential for them to catch.

Dave’s parting words were: before you even pick up a pen and start planning your marketing strategy, strip it back to the one essential thing for your consumer to know. The more you clutter it, the less chance you have of being successful. You can read more of Dave’s thoughts on his blog. Or, check out the 5 golden rules of successful suggestion and persuasion for more valuable learnings from this year’s BrightonSEO.