I heard a great story about Stan Clark recently.
Stan Clark was a normal kid. The kind of kid who loved go-karting.
Back in the 1950s Stan and his brother used to race their homebuilt ‘box kart’ on the hills around their home in Bugbrooke, England.
And, like most homebuilt contraptions, there were limitations to what their t-shaped planks of wood with crudely attached pram wheels could achieve – particularly when it came to cornering.
If Stan approached a corner at any kind of speed his go-kart would tip over, throwing him or his brother off, meaning that summers were often spent with perpetual cuts and grazes.
That was until a summer guest at their childhood home stepped in.
Their guest was obsessed with racing and, using the back of an old cigarette packet, drew up a plan for a better and safer kart.
He told them to use old tea chests to provide lightweight protection, he had them build the axel higher up the structure to lower the centre of gravity, he advised them to use rubber bands, made from motorcycle inner tubes, to prevent understeer and he developed a braking mechanism to stop them crashing quite so regularly.
Stan’s kart looked odd but the finely-honed changes, drawn precisely on the back of Juan Manuel Fangio’s cigarette packet, made him and his brother the fastest free-wheelers in the neighbourhood.
The ‘back of a cigarette packet’ has become shorthand for ‘rushed’, ‘ill-conceived’ or ‘lacking in detail’, but that space was all the greatest driver in the history of motorsport needed to teach two young boys the basic principles of aerodynamics, engineering and outright speed.
It was also exactly as much space as urban planner Oscar Niemeyer needed to sketch the basic geometry of model city and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Brasilia and the perfect backdrop for Paul McCartney to write out The Beatles set list for their final gig at Candlestick Park.
When the person doing the writing knows exactly what their idea is – and when they know it well enough to communicate it simply – the ‘back of a cigarette packet’ is sometimes all that’s needed.
Back in 1994 our now Managing Directors hadn’t yet set up Smarts Communicate. In fact they were frustrated colleagues working in a local advertising agency. One afternoon while travelling back from a client meeting they had an idea. They took out a packet of cigarettes, smoked the last one and wrote the idea for their own business right there and then – ‘What if we opened a PR agency that behaved like an advertising agency?’
They had been around the industry long enough to know exactly what this meant.
At the time PR was still relatively nascent and corporate in Northern Ireland but advertising agencies were altogether more sophisticated and more consumer focused. So what if PR could spread its wings a little? What if PR could do more than just send out press releases and put spokespeople up for interview? What if PR could use research and insights? What if PR could develop proper creative platforms and communications strategies? And what if, ultimately, PR could find different, interesting and attention-grabbing ways to genuinely engage consumers?
It was a revolutionary thought for the fledgling industry in Northern Ireland but it didn’t need a 200 page presentation and a three hour strategy meeting to articulate the thinking. The idea was so simple, so laser-focused, so easy to get, that the only space needed to express it was the back of a cigarette packet.
That ruthless focus on simplicity has now been our mantra for over 20 years and while most of us no longer use cigarette packets to capture our ideas we still hold ourselves to one simple rule – if we can’t explain an idea in one sentence then it’s not clear enough.
What we’ve learned over time is that simplicity is not easy. It requires real focus and real sacrifice to get to the heart of an idea. It takes discipline and it means letting go of any thinking that just gets in the way – no matter how clever that thinking is in its own right.
When the people we want to talk to have less time than ever to digest what we’re saying, when media consumption is at an all time high and when people are bombarded with hundreds of messages every hour then just getting noticed is the first challenge.
The reality is ‘simple works’. People believe in what they can understand and what they can remember, so there is no point in overcomplicating things. It’s the smart, simple ideas that stand out and cut through.
That’s why we work hard to make things simple, in a really smart way.
Simplicity. Good enough for Fangio. Good enough for Niemeyer. Good enough for McCartney. We could be in worse company.
Although I probably should have said this all in one line.
Global Strategy Director