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The Big Idea: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

14th July 09

'Idea' by brunkfordbraun, via Flickr

'Idea' by brunkfordbraun, via Flickr

For a good while now we’ve been hearing about the death of the big idea (put that phrase into Google and see what you get back), but before the coffin gets nailed down once and for all, I’d like to check for life signs.  Not so that we can limp on, clinging to an old familiar industry cliché, but to make sure we’re not systematically talking ourselves into killing off something that still has the power to bring tangible and intangible value to the brands we serve.

There are a dozen reasons this declaration is being made, many of which make a ton of sense. Gareth Kay, in a piece about the Future of Marketing, got me thinking a little while ago.  He argues that we need to ‘break the tyranny of the big idea’ for two reasons:

“First, we must remember that while marketing (and brands) exist for a commercial purpose, they live in a cultural space. And culture is far richer, deeper, complex and nuanced than 99.9% of marketing. Marketing will be more culturally interesting if it is made up of lots of coherent ideas than repeating consistently one idea.

Second, given our inability to predict the future (despite the fortunes spent on research) it makes much more sense to start lots of fires to see what takes hold and place lots of small bets…learning from them and then scaling up behind the ideas that seem to be working.”

This topic also seems something of a personal manifesto for some very smart people, including Iain Tait (Poke) who ran a workshop at Cannes called ‘The Art of Simple, Smaller & Smarter”, the introduction for which exhorted us to “Forget thinking big.  It’s time to think small” and Mark Cridge (Glue) who argues that an obsession with big ideas is an anathema in a digital world, most recently writing in NMA about “the lie of the big idea as the be all and end all to each and every creative problem.”  Mike Arauz (Undercurrent) also wrote not so long ago about a new business model for a digital creative agency which “sold a 100 little digital experiences instead of 1 big website.”

There’s a lot to agree with here: we’re well past the days of transmitting an identical, singular message ad nauseam and expecting it to have an effect; we’re finding a more agile, open, iterative approach is not just faster, but better and cheaper too; and the expectation that great brand communication might be defined solely by a TV monologue or a site that takes hours to load, carefully polished over months and months (to be launched upon a world we imagine waits breathlessly for it) also look increasingly anachronistic. Indeed, that behaviour is near impossible to make sense of this in the digital world we live in now, where speed, interactivity, reactivity and context all challenge content for impact in brand communications.

Yet all of the above suggests our problem here is not with big ideas per se, but with how they are executed.

I suspect what is being railed against most is the memory of grandiose, image-based advertising that historically dominated everything from ad spend to water cooler chat, at the expense of just about everything else. Certainly the language of ‘tyranny’ and ‘lies’ is powerful, emotional rhetoric, the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a turn-of-the-century political manifesto, maybe, not necessarily in 21st century adland.

Why should we even care?

Maybe it’s just a stage we’ve all got to get through, but when we interpret ‘big ideas’ as a shorthand to describe expensive TV ads with catchy endlines rammed home to their audiences nightly, we risk forgetting and devaluing the true meaning of the term.

At its simplest a big idea is a creative, compelling thought that gives a brand a strong sense of self in the eyes of its audience. Call that a unifying or conceptual thought, call it a big idea, call it a defining belief. Something that connects at a pretty profound human level. That guides the sort of conversations and stories we might want to create, listen to, fuel and curate on behalf of a brand. That endures over time and works across channel. Something to provide economies of scale and cohesion in an increasingly personalised world, with its attendant increases in variation and sheer volume of content.

This is not to deny for a second that re-engineering how ideas get executed isn’t both necessary and important.  If we accept there isn’t enough great work in an interactive space, then it’s healthy that we take a good look at ‘how’ we do what we do (see here for a great example of this from Tim Malbon), not just ‘what’ we do. That we appreciate breakthroughs can come through deliberately trialling new approaches to idea generation in the first place.  That it’s okay to realise a ‘small’ idea has the kernel of something great in it and build from there, rather than re-write history and pretend it was all part of a grand plan. That we realise this is a constant, evolving conversation or story, not a burst of activity then silence for six months.

In fact, ‘big’ need not mean lumbering, unsurprising or expensive. In fact, quite the opposite.  A big idea should make it easier, not harder, to act with speed and agility.  Take Axe, for example, a BBH client.  ‘The Axe Effect’ is a big idea that has been around for years and spans the globe – nowadays usually beginning & ending in an interactive space – but that thought has directly enabled many neat, inexpensive, ‘smaller’ expressions like mobile tools and seasonal tactics with – I would argue – greater ease and consistently high standards of creativity than if the brief been approached from scratch each and every time.  Equally, a personal favourite of mine is a film for Nike released earlier this year (from AKQA, directed by James Jarvis & Richard Kenworthy) that proves the point again that a (famously) big idea can be re-expressed surprisingly, beautifully and simply:

http://www.vimeo.com/4238176

Maybe it’s just new language we need.  Although I am reminded of something Kevin Kelly said ruefully in his excellent article ‘The New Socialism” in the July edition of Wired (UK): “I recognise the term socialism is bound to make many readers twitch……But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.”

Putting language redemption to one side for the moment, the main reason we shouldn’t be wishing big ideas into an early grave is simple: the very best ideas create longstanding meaning around a brand.  By definition they tend to transcend the prosaic: they move, entertain and galvanise people.  They unite and make sense of what can often be a loose connection of attributes and values, or a portfolio of products.  What this needn’t mean any longer is the mindless repetition in communication we’re all afraid of – identical expressions of the same message, all wrapped up with a neat bow of an endline.

Whilst I’m sure there are more reasons – and no doubt a ton of counter-arguments too (please let us know what you think here), I’m ending with 5 reasons we should stop referring to the ‘death of the big idea’ right now, before we talk ourselves out of a job:

  1. We cease to create economies of scale over time, channel & geography for our clients
  2. We reduce our own efficiency, reinventing the wheel every 5 minutes
  3. We commoditise what we do
  4. We lose some of our best thinkers & creators
  5. We create confused brands

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