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The Appliance of Plain English

Financial Times - 13th March 2001

I recently hired someone to share the responsibility of leading new business pitches with me; my effectiveness was falling as other responsibilities in the agency mounted.

I've been pitching for new media business for seven years now - beginning with multimedia kiosks, then CD-Roms, the web, intranets, interactive TV and, most recently, mobile commerce.

At the start it was relatively easy - no one knew what I was talking about until I explained it in terms of empowerment of the customer during the sale. It was pitching reduced to a list of features and benefits - simple!

Then came the jargonauts, the geeks, the wide boys, the yuppies and the pretenders, who threw buzz-words and acronyms around as if they were going out of fashion. Clients would ask me if I could deliver LRF support - what, I'd reply with raised eyebrows, Little Rubber Feet?

If I could match, or better still outdo, their high-handed bandying about of broadband, back ends and bugs, I'd be in with a chance. But what if I ignored the opportunity to blind my prospective clients with science?

I quickly discovered that while competitors would sneer, clients would smile with relief when I argued that jargon was for people who couldn't speak English.

So, for a few years it was easy: in a competitive pitch, industry colleagues would baffle those companies brave enough to take a chance on a new marketing channel. Meanwhile, I would sit there talking what I hoped was plain English. We doubled in size every year, and I never had to learn what ISDN stood for.

Then a few years ago everyone grew up, including me. I realised clients weren't just after straight talk, they wanted to see the justification for spending part of their marketing budget on new media. Gradually we all became aware that when we could put Mars or Unilever on our client lists, it could give us some serious "blue-chip validation". I used the word "effectiveness" effectively for the first time.

But now my new colleague and I have found the differences in our approach. When I see a brief, I get fantastic people to take it apart, re-assemble it, create a strategy, justify it with research, show what data we will gather in the first month, how that will justify each phase, and so on. I want to present a logical and compelling case for using us, and to justify using us at every step of the way.

My colleague does it differently. He doesn't bring in expert strategists, planners, producers and designers. He asks what the client really wants, how the plans will affect his job, the company's market position and future budgets. He gets back to basics. He does what I used to do but forgot - he simplifies things. What he doesn't set out to do is win business: he tries to win clients.

I am humbled. I've rediscovered that it's not how we communicate what we do, it's how we communicate with the client - how we help them to understand their needs, not just ours. This simple insight allows me to breathe a sigh of relief; the straightforwardness of my new colleague's approach means less hard work for greater return. It's much more effective.

Felix Velarde

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Plain English
New England
Success
Evolution
Targeting
Web Branding
Underwired*
Felix's home page
Head-Space