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.

Transform and Roll Out

And so, it is with major regret that we see our very own Optimus Prime, @saneel, leave the Lab and BBH. Happily he’ll be staying in the extended family, launching a soon-to-be-announced innovation offering being incubated at VivaKi. So I guess he has a new world to call home.

Personally, I’m going to miss the magic mix of insanely high-speed processing, megawatt brain and heart, motor mouth and deeply droll, bone-dry sense of humour that is Mr Saneel Radia. There aren’t many people who give such volume, value and velocity, whilst staying ice cool under pressure. He’ll hate me for saying this, but his final post here shares some useful lessons that demonstrate all of the above.

We wish him all the best. Go well, friend. (Mel, 29.01.13)

Dear BBH,
Well that was a crazy ride, no? From my first day to my last, we’ve had one of the most unique relationships I can imagine. I should have known I was in for something special when someone I respect as much as Ben recruited me, and about 100 days later said “I have bad news and good news”  (‘I’m leaving’ and ‘you’re in charge’, respectively).

You let me be whoever I wanted to be, and for that I’m eternally grateful. You never questioned me as a strategy lead, an account lead, or a creative lead– even when I kinda questioned myself.What’s most awesome is that I was never forced into a particular bucket, but you made me better at all of them because I was surrounded by people (everyone?) who could do it at a whole different level. I mean, pitching creative ideas to people like John and Pelle? Talking brands with Emma and Sarah? Of course I got better at all of it. It’d be impossible not to.

And thanks for being committed to innovation the way you are. In an industry that should be under arrest for assault based on its treatment of that word, this place continues to be a beacon of hope for people with different ideas. Any company that has someone like Mel around is going to have misfits ringing the doorbell daily. I’m just happy someone answered even though I was dressed in bright colors.

Finally, thanks for all of the lessons I’m taking with me as I move on. It’s impossible to document them all in a post, but these ring most loudly in my ears as I head off:

Small ideas are kinda hot.
I originally came to BBH because I couldn’t think of a place with “bigger” ideas. It turns out my favorite things were the small ideas. Working with interns 10 weeks at a time forces small ideas into greatness. Working with a company like Google, that regularly reminds you how bloated all your shit is (they were right more often than I’d like to admit), forced ideas into their purest form. Or sometimes it’s just not having enough time for anything bigger. Regardless, I fell in love with small. Mainly because of how big it can be. (Special thanks to Tim Nolan for aiding me along in this particular journey.)

The volume of noise isn’t indicative of the sentiment.
Homeless Hotspots was a media frenzy. There was a full cycle of negativity, then acceptance, then full-blown defense on our behalf. Yet from the beginning to the end, nothing but a positive impact on homelessness ever mattered; for the vast majority of people who care about such a thing (and have spent time with the homeless), their support always outweighed the negativity, no matter how loud the noise got. In fact, there was some genuinely productive, well meaning criticism we adopted as our work with the homeless has continued to evolve. It’s easy to see the difference now, but when the volume dial is set quite high, it can be a lot tougher. That’s clarity I’ll always take forward with me.

The greatest disservice one can do to their team is accepting their shitty work.
I’ve seen some really good days, and some really bad days in my 3-or-so years here. Almost unilaterally the bad days were the result of people not speaking up (myself included). When they were just too damn polite, or agreeable. Sure, it’s awkward sometimes. It’s uncomfortable every now and again. And yeah, you have to be able to speak “British” on occasion. But everyone worth a salt would rather make better work than have a good meeting. This is a lesson so many people have learned, but it took being at a place with a culture of mutual, fiery respect for me to truly appreciate it. I’m just glad you would tell me when I was shoveling shit.

With the right carrot, even the weary can be motivated.
It was a weird feeling, helping lead a city-wide effort to recruit LeBron James within weeks of moving here. But there I was, living in corporate housing, bonding with New Yorkers of every socio-economic class to create a movement to bring the world’s greatest athlete to the world’s greatest city. In the end, the goal was to get notoriously jaded New Yorkers to talk about their beloved city, and by that measure, holy smokes it was successful… even if LeBron took his talents to South Beach. The lesson stayed up north though: for all the user participation nonsense from brands, it’s ultimately the right carrot that gets people involved. Keep it simple (and timely), stupid.

Alright, BBH. I won’t drag it on any longer. I certainly could. I’m leaving a better, smarter, more creative person than I arrived. That’s a transformation I’m really excited about.

And all it took were a thousand sleepless nights and my liver….