We’re simple or we’re dead – a talk with Dave Trott

11 July 2014 / Bits and bobs /


A few of us at Gingernut Creative went to hear ad guru Dave Trott talk at one of Linney Group’s creative forums the other evening, courtesy of our friend and former copy chief Mr Michael Cook.


Though he comes from the creative stratosphere of New York and London’s adland, what strikes you about Dave Trott is the forehead-smacking practicality of his thinking.


Talking about how agencies can write better briefs (so they can produce more focused creative work for their clients), Dave showed how ‘the quality of the brief is inversely proportional to the length of words used.’


In other words, the simpler a brief is written, the better it is.


Who’s buying your product? Why should they buy it? Answering these simple questions with simple answers builds a more single-minded brief. In turn, this will help to create more targeted work for your clients.


Simple is hard though. And it’s hard to resist complexity.


Because the easy way to write a brief is to just put everything you know about the client and their product or service into the document. Dave illustrated this approach: ‘If I chuck you nine tennis balls, how many can you catch? You can only ever catch one.’


So by writing a brief that is more single-minded – by just throwing one tennis ball – you can be sure your message gets caught.


Dave showed how simple and methodical thinking lays good groundwork for the creative work. But when it comes to generating new ideas, there’s no road map.


‘There isn’t a formula because formulas aren’t creative,’ Dave pointed out. ‘People will say to you: “Don’t reinvent the wheel…” Bollocks! Always reinvent the wheel. That’s where the smart people are. The lazy people don’t reinvent the wheel; they want a formula.’


Dave talks about out-thinking the competition, which he also calls predatory thinking – a philosophical relative to Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking. It advocates problem-solving that changes or ignores the rules. For instance, one of Dave’s predatory thoughts says: you don’t have to win – you just have to make the other lot lose. And it’s beautifully illustrated by this story:


Two explorers are walking through the jungle. Suddenly they hear a tiger roar. One explorer sits down and takes a pair of running shoes out of his backpack. ‘You’re crazy, you’ll never out-run a tiger,’ says the other explorer. ‘I don’t have to out-run the tiger,’ he replies. ‘I just have to out-run you.’


‘We’re simple or we’re dead,’ said Dave, emphasising the crux of this tale. Simplicity is the key to many problems, but that doesn’t make it easy.


Properly inspiring and hugely practical, Dave’s chat reminded us how creative thinking is the irreplaceable, unbeatable capital of any agency. How the difference between a good idea and a great idea is by sometimes not following the rules.


In our own work at Gingernut Creative, we look at problems from many different angles (and interrogate the research ruthlessly) before we suggest a creative solution. And, while we always strive for simplicity, it’s far from the easiest journey – but it’s always the most engaging.


‘This is all just my views, it isn’t the truth,’ said Dave as he wound up his talk. But we have to say we think differently – it sounded a pretty good truth to us.


Who’s Dave Trott?
Raised by a family of sergeants in east London and trained at the top advertising agencies of New York’s Madison Avenue, Dave Trott is one of the world’s most successful ad men and creative thinkers. He’s also chairman and executive creative director of The Gate London. His deceptively simple, straight-talking wisdom is read by millions in his columns for Campaign, and in his best-selling books Creative Mischief and Predatory Thinking.