In Praise of Modern Complexity

I bow to no man or woman in my unbridled admiration of all communications emanating from the Geico brand. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that the work comes from a fellow Interpublic outfit, The Martin Agency, but everything to do with the fact that it may represent the most enlightened understanding in all America of how brands really work in the modern world.

The latter point of view is precisely the opposite of that put forward in a rival publication some months ago by a CMO whose name escapes me. It was in a section devoted to a competition in that publication designed to find the brand of the year or some such nonsense. Geico was, of course, one of the finalists, along with Apple, which I believe won. Several CMOs were asked to comment on their favorites, and this gentleman chose Geico as an example of a brand that didn’t belong at the top of the tree. His reason — and I’m paraphrasing here — was that it was a little all over the place with a Cockney gecko here, Little Richard and Peter Frampton there and Beverly Hillbillies and Cabbage Patch Kids over there. It all lacks synergy, seemed to be the gist.

Although he didn’t use words like synergy, my old boss Alan Midgley would criticize our ads for not “going around in the same gang” (said with a Yorkshire accent). He was an old-fashioned though brilliant and highly awarded art director, but his entire advertising weltanschauug was based around the belief which still seems to prevail today, namely that the consumer is dim and therefore needs everything served up simply and graphically and in a linear, crudely interconnected fashion.

I wonder whether this kind of view of brand synergy may have as its forebear Barnum’s quote about nobody failing to get rich by underestimating the intelligence of the public. This statement, as antiquated and far off the mark as any statement could be about the modern consumer — every single one of whom may as well be an all-seeing genius thanks to the Internet — is one of those irritating would-be truisms that has taken on an untouchable authority through decades of mindless repetition by the kind of salespeople that feel better about themselves by regarding their customers as marks.

OK, maybe they’re not all-seeing geniuses, but it’s my contention after crisscrossing America for three years observing consumers from behind one-way mirrors in research groups that they are far from dim.

Here’s a conundrum. The prevailing POV has always been that TV advertising only truly works when it’s extremely simple and direct. Indeed, typical American commercial-break fare could not be more simple and direct. However, that TV advertising is not working anymore is also the current view of an increasing number of people. The reason is that fewer people are watching TV. Many of these people have switched to different, principally interactive media. Meanwhile, things like TiVo have turned up to further plague the TV advertiser. The response to this almost across the board is to take no chances with those still dim enough to be glued to their televisions: TV advertising is becoming simpler and more direct and “lowest common denominator” than ever.

Another point of view, of course, is that the proliferation of media (and the general increase in the complexity of living) has created a completely different kind of consumer. These consumers use all kinds of media in all kinds of different mixtures. They also hold all kinds of different views about all kinds of different things in ways that would have been unthinkable even recently. For instance, they might be both Republican and green; or pro-war and pro-life. Although it’s all a bit chaotic out there, these new consumers do one thing more than consumers have ever done: They absorb the outside world. Even if they watch a lot of TV, they will still be logging a lot of computer time, too. TV is the home of the 30-second single-message interruption, but Internet interaction has for some time now been introducing people to the joys of complexity.

Sitting in research groups you realize how excellent the average person now is at instantly decoding the world (of brands or otherwise) around him or her. The takeaway for an advertiser is that paying consumers the compliment of showing you understand how smart they are pays dividends in the modern world.

One of the ways you do this is the way Geico does it. They don’t do it by old-school kindergarten-style graphic repetition of identical typefaces and messages. They do it by creating a unique and recognizable tone throughout their communications, and the clients are farsighted and wise enough to trust their consumers to identify and correctly attribute a whole gamut of messages. It’s rather like trusting that people will remember you even if you don’t wear the same coat all the time.

Great brands that truly get it, like Geico, also understand that having got complexity, consumers don’t suddenly un-get it when they switch their televisions on. I believe they’re in the vanguard of a fight back by TV advertising that will lead to increasingly layered, complex, beautiful and powerful work. All of which I base on absolutely nothing but my gut and my imagination: Ain’t it great writing a column?

Mark Wnek is New York chairman and CCO at Lowe in New York. He can be reached at