Brexit, or What Happens When You Don’t Have Big Ideas

Author, Richard Cable, Content Director, BBH London


There’s a post being shared on social media that shows a scene of Armageddon under the legend ‘If we leave the EU’. Beneath it is an identical image under the legend ‘If we remain in the EU’. It’s a perfect expression of the dire predictions emanating from both camps.

At stake is the United Kingdom’s place in the world. We are engaged, as a nation, in creating a positioning statement that will define our role in the 21st century. The shaping of destiny is heady stuff. Now is the time, if ever, to do the ‘vision thing’, break out the stirring rhetoric and inspire a generation. It’s a big stage that cries out for big ideas.

Instead, we’ve ended up with stereo negativity. Surround-sound Project Fear. The political equivalent of an Eastenders Christmas special, in which unloveable people say terrible things about each other for an extended period, followed by an unedifying revelation just before the ‘doof doofs’ at the end.

Which is bizarre, given that there are two ready-made big ideas at the heart of both campaigns.

According to Millward Brown, the anatomy of a truly big idea is that it disrupts the category, has emotional resonance, compels you to discuss it, is credible and believable, and cuts across cultural and geographic boundaries.

By that rationale, the European Union is the biggest of big ideas, transcending the nation state, bringing peace through shared prosperity, creating order and structure through collaboration across one of the most historically diverse and fractious continents on Earth. Britain in the vanguard of a great leap forward. (Campaign song: ‘All Together Now’, The Farm)

On the other hand, we have the radical, kick-over-the-traces option that would see us be the first to cut loose from an organisation no-one has ever cut loose from before and striking out as an independent. The challenger brand that promises a less encumbered, less parochial perspective, match-fit for a century that will be defined by what goes on in Beijing, Rio and Delhi, not Brussels. Britain as a re-energised global free agent. (Campaign song: ‘Here I Go Again (On My Own)’, Whitesnake)

Both big. Massive, in fact.

Yet somehow we’ve ended up with a choice of lanes on the dual carriageway to Hell; financial catastrophe if we leave (campaign song: ‘You Oughta Know’, Alanis Morrisette) and the-immigrants-are-coming-to-get-us if we stay (campaign song: ‘The Wall’, Pink Floyd).

It’s as if the two camps see us, the electorate, as a gigantic Lou and Andy sketch, sitting, myopic and listless, mumbling ‘I don’t like it’ over and over again before suddenly deciding ‘I want that one’.

Nationwide Building Society- Little Britain- Lou and Andy from Adam Arber on Vimeo.

Failing to land a big idea could be considered an occupational hazard. Failing to formulate one to begin with is nothing short of intellectual cowardice.

A big idea tells people what you stand for, but a big idea is fraught with risk. It takes courage to stand up and say “We choose to go to the Moon”. It takes luck and energy and talent and belief to actually get there. You choose a big idea not because it is easy but, as Kennedy went on to explain: “…because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept and unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”

Would Kennedy have electrified an entire nation with the pioneering zeal to see the job through if he’d chosen instead to talk about projections of the likely long term economic benefits of the space programme, or the fact that on the Earth you don’t get to choose your own laws of gravity and they’ll let literally anyone live here?

No. He captured the imagination of the quarter of a billion tax payers who were going to foot the bill for this ludicrously expensive enterprise by landing one big idea: The Moon. First.

The ‘big idea’ is advertising’s most recent sacred cow to be trotted in the direction of the abattoir. If you needed a cautionary tale against dragging Daisy up the steps and in favour of setting her free in Elysian Fields forever, the EU Referendum is about as cautionary as it gets.

As David Ogilvy put it: “You will never win fame and fortune unless you invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

Or in this case, perhaps sink like one.

A Public Service Announcement


I am happy that I’m not going to indadvertedly click a link on twitter and find myself watching a video of the beheading of James Foley. But the removal of this video and other content from Google, Twitter and Facebook raises important questions about media, freedom of expression and control of information.

In the digital age, we are nearing the point where an idea banished by Twitter, Facebook and Google all but vanishes from public discourse entirely, and that is only going to become more true as those companies grow even further.

Should Twitter, Facebook and Google Executives be the Arbiters of what we See and Read – Glen Greenwald

As is pointed out here, this is not a question of censorship. Rather it is an editorial decision, made on perfectly reasonable moral and taste grounds and at the request of the family of James Foley. And while we might completely agree with the decision in this instance, are we happy for Facebook to delete content created by Syrian dissidents? Or not remove videos of other gruesome actions that do not involve Western journalists. Or allow the publication of live tweets of IDF military actions against Hamas? These complex religious and geopolitical issues are throwing up new moral, social and editorial challenges for technology companies. But as these companies morph into not just media companies, but media itself, it is becoming important to ask what precedents are being set? What actual policies are at work?

We have no rights beyond what the companies give us in their terms of service, where quaint ideas like the First Amendment have no application.

The New Editors of the Internet – Dan Gillmor

The huge centralized web services such as facebook and google, the Stacks as Bruce Sterling calls them, are making these editorial decisions because we’ve both asked and allowed them to. They are incredibly useful services and incredibly convenient services and incredibly free services to use. We might not pay with our wallets, but instead we pay with our views, our content, our shares, likes, retweets and our profiles. If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product being sold. We know this. Facebook and Google and Twitter ultimately can decide what goes through their pipes – if we don’t like their decisions we can take our cat photos elsewhere, however inconvenient that might be.

So, if we’re the product, who are the customers? Brands, obviously, who love the convenience and the scale and the data and metrics they get from their paid-for relationships with The Stacks. And brands too, make sacrifices when they embark on these relationships. The world of brand microsites was one of variable quality, but vast variety. Today’s uniformity of branded voice and imagery, the identikit, out-of-the-box formatting solutions provided by tumblr and facebook and youtube can almost induce nostalgia for the visual assault of the World Wild Web. Again, google and twitter and facebook have the right to design their pipes their way – if brands don’t like the formats on offer they can take their content elsewhere, however inconvenient that might be.

I am relieved that my kids can watch youtube without clicking on a thumbnail and seeing James Foley’s horrific murder. But I am also telling them that if they want a place on the internet where they are not the product, a place where they are the editor, where they set the precedents and make the policies, a place that is theirs, then they will have to own it and pay for it and make it. They’ll have to buy a domain and manage some hosting and create some content and establish their own digital identity. And they’ll have to deal with the inconvenience and freedom that comes with it.


[note – this post was provoked by links on NextDraft, Dave Pell‘s excellent daily newsletter]

‘Everything we know, is wrong’

How communication is consumed: West vs East, from "Everything we know, is wrong"

BBH Asia Pacific Chairman, Charles Wigley, and Rob Campbell of W+K delivered their joint talk “Everything we know, is wrong” at The Asia Marketing Effectiveness Festival in Shanghai last week. Asked to be provocateurs, their talk (slideshare below) smartly tackles five flawed notions in one fell swoop: from ‘tv is dead’, ‘brand love’, ‘everyone wants to join in’, ‘pre-testing makes everything better’ and finally ‘London and New York know absolutely everything’. At Labs we particularly enjoyed the provocation of the last theme, which struck us as something not discussed nearly enough on these pages. If you’re someone with a client or simply a keen interest in Asia (so all of us, then..), then may we suggest – if you do nothing else – reading slides 64-81 of Chaz and Rob’s presentation below.

[slideshare id=12671669&doc=ame2012presentation-120424105922-phpapp01]

As Chaz himself puts it:

“We had what we knew would be a crowd pleaser in the East where we have both lived and worked for years, but may be less of one in the West. We’ll see. We firmly believe it anyway. Specifically we took on the notion that ‘West knows best. If you believe that culture significantly influences how people look at and interact with the world, then there is ample evidence that it causes Asian – more collectivist – consumers to interact differently towards brands and to read communications differently. Academia and our business are just at the start of understanding this one. But it’s going to be big. Read Richard Nisbett’s ‘The Geography of Thought’.”

Chaz and Rob in action at AME 2012

Quora’s pursuit of the holy grail: intent (a counter-view)

We recently posted a rant about Quora that generated a lot of conversation. One of the comments was by Leslie Barry, the founder of Iphso. Leslie made the intriguing argument that Quora actually gets closer to question-and-answer nirvana than any other service: identifying intent. Here’s his explanation of what we’re just not getting. We couldn’t be happier to hear his perspective and would like to thank him for generously agreeing to guest post.

*** *** ***

Author: Leslie Barry (@LeslieCBarry), Founder of Iphso

What is intent?

According to The Search by John Battelle, the holy grail of search is to interpret the user’s intent and direct them seamlessly to the content, or ideally, provide the answer directly.

If we assume that intent is not WHAT I’m asking, but WHY I’m asking it, then I believe that Quora is closer to solving the intent of search.

So how does Quora get us closer to it?

Quora’s approach is to get the best qualified people (through credentials or experience) to create some rules (boring to some, but necessary to prevent chaos – even Wikileaks has rules), then leverages the serendipity effect to overcome the constraints of similar services, like LinkedIn, to refine the best questions to elicit the best answer.

What makes Quora unique is that it uses serendipity more effectively than other services.

What is the ‘serendipity effect’?

Wikipedia defines serendipity as ‘a propensity for making fortunate discoveries while looking for something unrelated.’

An example is the real-world benefit I’ve experienced from social media, specifically Twitter, where I meet useful people that I would never know existed without a serendipitous network – i.e., people that I didn’t know I needed to know.

Quora is leveraging this extremely well: connecting the right ‘people I didn’t know I needed to know’ to clarify intent of the question, and as a result, shortening the path to the answer.

Intent is only relevant past a certain threshold of question. Something as simple as ‘What is the capital of Maine?’ is clearly better answered via Google. No rocket-science behind the intent there, but asking something slightly more complex and ambiguous like ‘How do you consume news? Has this changed in recent years?’ presents a greater challenge. When you Google it, Google assumes:

  • The question is correct
  • Keyword/location/context matching is adequate

So here is what Google thinks the answer is:

…and then Bing:

They both completely missed the point without the Quora results!

Conversely, this is what Quora’s users think the answer is:

Clearly, Quora is more efficient at interpreting intent.

This is because Quora doesn’t assume the question is correct. Instead it provides the ability to ask a question and have it clarified and modified wiki-style to help shape and tease out my intent. Often as a user, I’m clear on my intent, but am not the subject matter expert and therefore unclear on how to frame the question. The iterative, near-time editing of the question helps solve this issue. Also, Quora doesn’t focus on keyword/location/context matching like a mind-less search engine. Quora’s process of refining the question by subject matter experts eliminates the extra steps of sifting through multiple, non contextual answers.

And yes, there are many planted questions (Google Link-bait pages, anyone?, LinkedIn self-promotion?, mindless waffle on Yahoo Answers?), and self-promotion, but so what?

All I care about is the quicker path from question to most valuable answer that addresses ‘what I meant’, not necessarily what I asked. My intent.

Why can’t Google or Bing use other people’s answers to opinion-type questions to decide the most relevant options to serve you? I think this is because of their strong focus on the search algorithm, which values content over context and popularity over intent. Also, Google is one-way traffic, without an iterative, refining feedback loop; we have to stumble blindly along hoping for one or two interesting search results out of ten or twenty.

As a result, it’s Quora, not a traditionally defined search engine, that’s helping us take a step towards the holy grail of intent.

It’s not perfect, but it’s challenging our approaches and thinking about teasing out intent from users. Maybe Google indexes them and learns from them? Once again, it doesn’t matter – we will have taken a huge leap from accepting that indexing and search is better than curated, considered, intelligent answers.

The answer to this Quora? No.

The question-and-answer site Quora is a big deal. It has some powerful supporters, with early content posted by a diverse group of digerati from Steve Case to Robert Scoble. It’s the talk of the media (see Google Trend of the word Quora).  There are weekly articles on how Quora will be bigger than Twitter.

So, I guess it was inevitable that I’d hate it. To clarify, it’s not that I don’t like Quora. It’s that I hate it and want it wiped off the face of the earth. In a missionary effort to reach those few that are yet to form an opinion on this site equivalent of an Uwe Boll movie, I offer the following 3 reasons to resist boarding this bandwagon.

It’s spam.

This site diabolically infects those with the largest spam potential. I guess when a site is launched by the former head of Facebook Connect, it’s inevitable. By launching after Facebook established critical mass and Twitter became a big deal, Quora made a splash in the saturated question-and-answer site category. So, giving people the opportunity to be in the spotlight with their answer to an already-answered question is an ingenious way to drive audience and usage by appealing to ego. And I don’t even mind ego-stroking. I just don’t want to be repeatedly spammed across my various feeds as people whose content I otherwise love and trust fall victim to name-in-lights syndrome. Then again, if I could convince people I invented tape, it might be worth it….

There are dozens of Quoras about what Quora is.

OK, so maybe #Twitter was a trending topic on Twitter the first 6 months. But those conversations were focused primarily on usage and innovation with the platform. The Quora self-referential conversations are literally people scratching their heads looking for value. There’s no better sign that the emperor has no clothes people. But until we admit it, we’ll just keep tweeting how awesome he looks in that special toga (author’s note: this has nothing to do with how awesome I think the hashtag #emperorsclothes would be, promise).

Quora is attempting to differentiate itself via answer quality.

This is defended through its use of Facebook Connect (real people!) and an interest graph (curated topics!). Here’s the thing about quality: it’s inversely related to scale on the web. Generally, users or an algorithm are required to remove the noise. Last I looked, countless services already do this. They go by ticker symbols like GOOG, have David Fincher movies made about them, or add a new user every second (most of whom request a professional recommendation after a single meeting together).

So, let’s sit this Quora thing out. We were able to resist Google Wave and Ping. Let’s make it three in a row that we tried and let pass quietly. This isn’t to say I don’t respect the effort or experimentation of any company trying something new (Google & Apple are incredible at innovation investment). In Quora’s case, I just think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it via my newsfeed.

Now world, if you’re not on board, pretty please give me a heads-up that I’m taking on a lost cause.

Then I can start a new Quora-related Quora: “How can I get a job at Quora?”

{Update: I’ve agreed to write a follow-up post to either eat my words or discuss what I got right after some, ahem, encouragement from readers. So keep an eye out!}

{Update #2: We asked Leslie Barry to elaborate on his comment below and he’s posted a rebuttal, explaining the unique value of Quora I’ve neglected in the post above.}