The Suit: Say it simply, dammit
by Jason Harrison. As a suit, your job is to write short letters.
When I worked in the UK, I had the misfortune of attending a research presentation on a piece of brand-positioning work that the agency had developed for the whole of Europe. The difficulty in the brief was clearly in the ask — “the WHOLE of Europe” — and we were genuinely looking for some clear and distilled feedback on how to tackle the different countries, cultures and consumers in a way that would really resonate.
Began with a bang
The global research agency started off with a bang, dedicating the first half-hour to the composition of the focus groups, the special methodology used and what seemed to be the statistical argument as to why its fee and the number of slides were going to be deeply correlated.
At the hour mark, the creative team, after being bombarded with three indecipherable bar graphs per slide, started to nod off. At one-and-a-half hours, the strategist gave up listening and began doodling in his highly curated, unlined, matte black Moleskin note pad. At the two-hour mark, my client looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and started scrolling through his emails on his Blackberry. At the two-and-a-half-hour mark, as I was about to give in, the presenter pulled me to the edge of my seat with “you’ll be pleased to know there is one more slide”.
Here it was: the moment of truth. The moment that the preceding six weeks of research across five European cities with three focus groups per city would be proven to have been worth it. The moment all the glorious answers would be revealed. Triumphantly, he clicked on the final slide which came up with just two words: “Thank you.”
That global research agency was obviously keen disciples of Blaise Pascal and Mark Twain, who both said variations of “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
How to write short letters
Your job as a suit is to write short letters. How?
If it can be said in a page, rather say it in a paragraph. If it can be said in a paragraph, rather say it in a sentence. If it can be said in a sentence, rather say it in a word. The greatest concepts contain the least words: “I have a dream” / “One man. One vote”. Complexity is the hiding place for mediocrity, so be brave and strip away anything extraneous in your thinking. Remember that no client ever asked for a longer presentation.
Clarity before content
How often has it happened that you receive all the pieces to the puzzle in terms of strategy, creative and media the day before, only to look at it all and wonder what puzzle you are even building with these disparate pieces? Rather get into a room together and, upfront in the process, plot out the logic of the story you believe you need to tell. Decide on the front cover of that puzzle and then set off to colour it in beautifully.
Bullet points are your friend
I recently read a contact report that was five pages long and would have put a court stenographer to shame. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Conciseness is a rigorous process and takes time to master. The best way to start doing so is to simply use bullet points. A nice bold heading that captures the essence of the thought and then a simple one-liner for context. Use them on emails to clients and colleagues and on briefs to creatives. It will save days of your life (and theirs). Just don’t use them in presentations. Roald Dahl didn’t use bullet points to tell the great story of the BFG, nor JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Thinking back to that global research agency presentation, it reminded me of the tale of a woman who was walking through a rural village and saw this man carving the most amazing wooden elephants. They were so beautiful that the women went up and asked the man how on earth he could make something so astounding. Quizzically, he looked up from his work and replied, “It’s simple. I take this wooden block. Then I take this knife. Then I cut away everything that is NOT an elephant”.
That’s your job.
Jason Harrison started as a 23-year-old account executive at Ogilvy & Mather before moving to London five years later to run three agency teams in three different European countries. He joined his old mates again in 2011 as one of the founding partners of the M&C Saatchi Group at 33. He believes that creating beautifully simple solutions for an increasingly complex world will, in fact, save the world. His MarkLives column, “The Suit” is about inspiring and helping up-and-coming suits to be better at their craft. He is no longer on Twitter.