“Without action, the world would still be an idea”
General George F. Doriot
The old-school charisma of the leading man… the tenderness of that scene with her and his jacket… the luminous, beautiful quality of the whole thing… the choreography of that scene on the staircase… the inspired casting… the joy and revelation of the final scene… And oh, to have a dog like that.
These were the things that we spoke about as we left the cinema one chilly Sunday evening after seeing The Artist. We could have mused about what the ‘idea’ of the film was, or what it was ‘about.’ But we weren’t aspiring film critics or students of art theory. We’d just wanted some Sunday night escapism before the reality of Monday's approach became all too inescapable.
While the analogy between what we make and a piece of art is far from faultless, thinking back on that evening did prompt me to reflect that for all the talk of ‘ideas’ in our industry, they really aren’t for people in the real world at all. They’re for us. They’re for ad- and marketingfolk.
What people experience and respond to is execution.
After all, much of the time, we really aren’t paying that much attention anyway. For the most part, we don’t regard as learning about brands as very important. Brands and their expressions are just part of that endless torrent of thoughts, images, events and feelings that make up our taken for granted world.
Certainly we don’t consciously process most advertising as verbal or factual messages. But we do consume its codes and signals. All the imagery, sounds, symbols, music, references and so on of creative content are not merely tricks designed to draw attention to our message or to make it memorable. They are the communication.
And as Robert Heath has shown in his work on low involvement processing, while we absorb this stuff, we don’t think about it.
In this context, we’re hardly inclined to ponder what the ‘big idea’ is. While we might agonize over them in marketing- and adland, in the real world we don’t experience marketing content as abstract ideas.
People didn't get excited by the intellectual idea that footballers have the chance to make history at the World Cup. They got excited by an epic piece of film that brought that idea to life with flamboyance, scale, wit, star players and pop culture references a plenty.
Execution is what stirs the emotions, excites, intrigues, and ignites desire.
This is not to say that the idea is entirely redundant.
It's always great to have great content, but as our Amanda Feve put it recently, if you can't articulate the idea behind it, it's hard to turn it into a multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-country, multi-agency campaign that feels like it's all come from the same place.
That doesn't mean that you need to get too precious about it, just that you need to be able to articulate what the idea is.
In other words, ideas are a way we use to inspire, manage, marshall, and co-ordinate our efforts and end creative content. Having an idea ensures that what we do hangs together, that successive expressions of it build on and refresh people’s memory structures.
Those of us not charged with the hands-on act of creating can be (for better and for worse) comfortable in the world of abstraction. So the recognition that in the real world people don’t consume or ponder the abstract but experience the real and the visceral, should sound a warning note that we not get too caught up in the theory and abstraction behind the work.
Certainly we should invest time and energy thinking about the idea. It is what gives it shape, coherence, and consistency over time. And in as much as brands are merely patterns and networks of associations in the mind, all of these things matter a great deal.
But if we allow ourselves to become divorced from the execution (or allow others to divorce us from it) then we become separated from the very thing that people experience.
For strategy isn’t theory, abstract and intellectual. It’s real and visceral and tangible. It is nothing more than a series of coherent and coordinated actions. And we should never be content with merely painting the outlines of an abstraction. As the General said, "Without action, the world would still be an idea."
The brain of Amanda Feve
The Artist, dir. Michel Hazanavicius (2012)
Inherent in the very act of creating ideas is chaos, unpredictability, randomness. Anybody who is in the business of ideas or who has had an idea knows that however much discipline and order we might rightly or wrongly try and inject, it is never a linear path.
Our challenge is often not to actually have the idea, but to recognise it from afar, or amidst the din and chaos, wrest it from the ghouls of doubt or criticism. To defend it against slings and arrows. To identify it as one with potential or better yet, as a Really Good One – worth protecting, nurturing, and developing.
That makes our jobs as creators, innovators, inventors and ideas people tough. It demands that we’re vigilant because ideas can creep up on us. They can appear at the edges suddenly and unexpectedly.
In his poem ‘The Thought Fox’ the English poet Ted Hughes dramatised vividly and viscerally how ideas can approach us silently, tentatively, waiting to be spotted or let in:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed
On this subject of encouraging nervous ideas in, the ever-wise and ever-brilliant Jeremy Bullmore last year had some twenty-four carat advice in his column for Campaign. Responding to a question from someone new to the advertising business – "What are your three most important bits of advice for someone like me?" – his advice was this:
“Advertising is, or should be, all about ideas, wheezes, hypotheses and improvisations : why don't we…? what about…? let's try…… Good advertising makes difficult things happen – and almost everything that's going to be suggested, at least in it's initial expression, will be patently flawed.
As an eager young recruit, you'll be sorely tempted to display your intelligence by pointing this out : by focusing the blinding light of your analysis on the obvious inadequacies of each fragile weakling : and almost certainly in the presence of the weakling's author and the author's superior. What's more, it will be clear from your expression that you expect praise for this act of wanton demolition.
So my first piece of advice; never, ever do this. It's the easiest thing in the world and the least constructive. If you want to be valued, you need to display a consistent ability to see potential in the feeblest spark and help to coax and cosset it until it blazes into glory. If you can't do that, just shut up and listen.
I don't know what the other two are.”
Brilliant advice not just for new recruits, but all of us.
Fox or spark. Pick your metaphor.
Just remember to be the one that encourages it.
Or, as Mr. Bullmore suggests, shut up and listen.
The nature of ideas
There is a ceaseless rhetoric in marketing circles about ‘ideas’; big ideas, small ideas, advertising ideas, campaign ideas, strategic ideas, tactical ideas, sticky ideas, contagious ideas, creative ideas, product ideas, brand ideas, idea factories, media agnostic ideas, consumer generated ideas, participative ideas, design ideas, inciting ideas, famous ideas, disruptive ideas, return on ideas, and so on. And on.
But ask an adperson what, precisely, an idea is, and they will look at you with the expression of a dog that’s just been shown a card trick.
Practitioners and thinkers from the worlds of technology, invention, economics and creativity have however, long pointed to combination as being at the heart of every new idea, whether tangible or intangible in nature.
For the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, economic change and advancement came from new combinations of productive means. To produce anything he argued, involved combining materials and forces differently.
Similarly, the economic historian Abbott Payson Usher argued that invention arose from “the constructive assimilation of pre-existing elements into new syntheses.”
The social scientist Gilfillan defined invention as a “new combination of prior art.”
The writer Arthur Koestler gets a good amount of credit for his examination of the nature of creativity and ideas. It was Koestler who in his book The Act of Creation first introduced the notion of ‘bisociation’. Examining (ironically in rather serious, dry prose) what made humour humorous, he presented the notion that creativity arises as a result of the intersection of two different frames of reference.
Although much less well known than Koestler, James Webb Young too was very much interested in the origin of ideas and the nature of the creative process. Young was a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson in the USA, and was a major intellectual influence on it. In 1940 he published a refreshingly slim book (weighing in at a mere 50 pages) entitled A Technique For Producing Ideas.
Given the extent of its rhetoric around anything to do with ideas, it remains bizarrely neglected by the advertising industry yet in its pages we find some of the wisest, and crucially the most useful, writing on the subject of ideas:
“An idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events.”
This notion of the combining of different worlds or spheres of knowledge has been echoed more recently in the work of the psychologist Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In his analysis of the creative process and individual, Csikszentmihalyi saw creativity as drawing from what he termed ‘domains’ . These were self-contained man-made patterns and categories of order and knowledge. Each one of these multitude of domains – whether it is for example, flower arranging, risk management, aerodynamics, bricklaying, software programming, or photography – represents a coherent body or reservoir of powers and possibilities. And we can in turn think of creativity as being the act of drawing from and combining these different domains and their constellations of methods, devices, understandings and practices.
Professor Brian Arthur – one of Silicon Valley’s most influential thinkers – builds on (though oddly doesn’t acknowledge) Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of domains and demonstrates how technological innovation arises out of what he calls ‘redomaining.’
In this process, he argues that industries adapt themselves to a new body of technology, drawing and selecting from the new body of knowledge and combining some of their parts with some of those of the new domains.
Modern finance provides a good example of this process of redomaining. It represents (for better or for worse) the synthesis of two domains – that of the traditional skills and practices of finance and risk management, with the newer domain of computer technology.
Far from being static, domains then, are in flux, constantly combining with others to breed new ones, which in turn lead to further new categories. In this way, by combining and drawing from the domain of computing, the traditional domain of finance was transformed into something new.
For Csikszentmihalyi this reconfiguration of domains is at the heart of the creative process:
“Creativity is any act… that changes an existing domain, or that transforms an existing domain into a new one.”
While those who advise and pronounce on innovation, creativity and ideas largely ignore this body of knowledge and experience, our history of intellectual and tangible innovation has taught us a fundamental and enduring lesson – that ideas are new combinations.
From this perspective, it is evident that the oft-invoked cliché “thinking outside the box” is a trite , unhelpful – and indeed inaccurate – representation of what any kind of creative process entails.
It is not escaping the box that matters, but bringing new inspirations and materials into it.
Why it is like cooking
The Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer is credited with stimulating what is known as New Growth Theory. It’s a theory of economic growth that emphasises increasing returns associated with new knowledge. This is in contrast to traditional economic models which centre on the notion of diminishing returns.
Precisely because physical capital is ultimately subject to diminishing returns, Romer argues that the classical suggestion that we can grow rich by accumulating more and more pieces of physical capital was wrong.
Instead, he argues economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. He has likened production and growth in an economy to cooking. To create valuable final products, we blend inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe.
However, growth for him is not simply the result of doing more of the same activity, or of simply scaling the same recipe up. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, Romer argues that we would in time run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance that are the inevitable by-products of cooking in the economy. Instead, he argues that the lesson of human history is that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking:
“Ultimately, all increases in standards of living can be traced to discoveries of more valuable arrangements for the things in the earth’s crust and atmosphere… No amount of savings and investment, no policy of macroeconomic fine-tuning, no set of tax and spending incentives can generate sustained economic growth unless it is accompanied by the countless large and small discoveries that are required to create more value from a fixed set of natural resources.”
It is this combination, this injection of something new that is for Romer the engine of an idea’s value:
“When a useful mixture is discovered… The discovery makes possible the creation of economic value. It lets us combine raw materials of low intrinsic value into mixtures that are far more valuable… In this fundamental sense, ideas make growth and development possible.”
Romer believes we possess a nearly infinite capacity to reconfigure physical objects by creating new combinations of them – by devising in other words, new recipes. His view echoes Einstein’s insight that as soon as we look outside our immediate frame of reference and exercise our imagination, our potential resources become limitless. Physical resources are subjects to scarcity. But when it comes to ideas, there is practically no scarcity.
To appreciate the potential for discovery, we need only consider the possibility that an extremely small fraction of the vast number of possible mixtures available to us may be valuable.
To get a sense of the possibilities open to us, consider that a mere 10 building blocks or ingredients gives us 1013 combinations. Twenty building blocks gives us 1,048,555 combinations. Forty gives us 1,099,511,627,735. And of course each of these new combinations in turn expands the number of building blocks to choose from. It really is exponential. In the words of Professor Romer, this is “combinatorial explosion.”
Of course, not all of these combinations will prove to be successful or desirable. Nonetheless as Brian Arthur reminds us, even if the chances are only one in a million that something useful will result, the possibilities for newness, improvement, progress, surprise – are still truly vast.
Cooking and the creation of new recipes provide us then with an altogether more helpful, accurate and more economically relevant metaphor for ideas and the creative process than any escaping of boxes. Our supply of physical ingredients may be subject to scarcity but our ability to recombine them in new and interesting ways, and devise new recipes is nearly infinite.
And when we look closely, we can find this perspective on the creation of ideas in spheres as disparate as technology and perfumery. For the technology expert James Newcomb for example, providing energy efficiency services requires understanding an enormous number of individual technologies and the ability to successfully combine these technologies. “It’s the skill of a master chef” as he puts it, “Not a grocer’s buyer.”
The art and science of creating perfumes is another form of cooking, involving the development of new recipes and the successful combining of physical ingredients. Writer, journalist, and perfume expert Tania Sanchez also promotes the Algorithm of Ideas: “Perfumes have ideas: there are surprising textures, moods, tensions, harmonies, juxtapositions.”
Ideas are surprising new combinations and the art of the creator and innovator is to manage those harmonies and juxtapositions deftly, and to maximum effect.
Originality and tradition
Understanding that ideas are in essence new combinations, and that creativity is not an act of escape but one of imaginative recombining, helps us put both originality and tradition into proper context.
There can then be no originality without tradition, since the knowledge, practices and skills of a chosen domain must be mastered before they can be challenged, built upon, gone beyond – and combined with that of another domain.
We need tradition and technique because they are the foundation of expression. They give us a concrete and informed starting point. They give us something to work with, to combine with other things. They give us something to test, challenge and push against. As the art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote: “Even the artist who is in revolt against tradition depends on it for that stimulus which gives direction to his efforts.”
No idea, no act of creation therefore is wholly original. All ideas are constructed out of other ideas. W. Brian Arthur reminds us that the very nature of our world means we can only create out of what has gone before, out of what we inherit: “Creations out of nothing are possible only for God.”
We have seen how just as in cooking, ideas are born of combining ingredients or domains. We have also seen how our reservoir of possibilities is expanding all the time as the process of combining different and unrelated domains in turn generates new domains, and raw materials for us to work with. This understanding that the fundamental structure of any idea is a new combination finally sheds light on those words that are frequently attributed to Picasso: “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”
But new ideas, new art, progress and freshness are not formed simply through mindlessly (or shamelessly) replicating, copying, and duplicating. We’ve all been subjected to the lazy, kitsch, Legoland-like postmodernism of supermarket ‘architecture’.
Creativity works more organically and holistically than simply cutting and pasting. It works through a more subtle interplay of tradition and discontinuity. As new combinations, ideas – just like art – must build upon, re-express, exploit, interpret, and reinvent what has gone before it.
Picasso was warning us that copying strives for merely shortcuts, and is nothing but lazy and dull. The good artist however, executes the perfect crime. The theft, this compounding of originality and inheritance is not noticed because it is successfully integrated and transformed into something fresh and new.
Successful theft then is hard work. It takes intelligence and imagination. It takes an understanding of respect and for the traditions which have preceded it.
Damien Hirst for example, rather than being merely some strange and gimmicky, theatrical ‘Britart bad boy’ is someone who is explicitly working with the inspiration of Francis Bacon, systematically going through Bacon’s images and obsession with flesh, decay and mortality as he acknowledged in an interview “and giving them a concrete existence.”
For example, his triptych of vitrines The Tranquility of Solitude (For George Dyer) (2006) is directly and explicitly inspired by Bacon’s Triptych May-June 1973. This triptych was one of many paintings made by Bacon as a tribute to George Dyer, his lover for seven years, who committed suicide in 1971, in their hotel room. Hirst’s triptych of vitrines meanwhile reflects those of Bacon. In one, a flayed sheep’s carcass pokes out of a lavatory bowl, a syringe in one leg; in the centre, a crucified carcass hangs over a basin, scalpels standing in a pot beneath; and in the third, the carcass bends over a basin as if to vomit, vodka and pills strewn beneath it.
The contemporary photographer Gregory Crewdson is known for his elaborately-staged tableaux of suburban alienation. Crewdson acknowledges the influence that the paintings of Edward Hopper play in his work. Hopper like Crewdson, was much preoccupied with the themes of loneliness and separation from the world in his art. It is not just the subject matter of Hopper that influences Crewdson, but his approach to composition. Both Hopper’s paintings and Crewdson’s photographs are highly theatrical, there is in both a sense that they’ve been deliberately staged, and that we’ve simply frozen a moment in some theatrical narrative. It is not surprising to learn that Hopper used to liken his paintings to the single frames of films. Part of the surprise and freshness of Hopper’s work is that he applied a filmic approach to his painted compositions, and part of the surprise and freshness of Crewdson’s is that his photographic compositions are informed by Hopper’s approach to creating frozen narrative moments.
The insight that ideas are new combinations puts the mandate for originality into some more sensible and meaningful context. As Sir John Hegarty has commented: “By definition, no idea can be original. It has to relate back, in some way or other.”
Theft versus robbery and cliché
This compounding of tradition with originality is of course, not an easy undertaking.
For those who avoid the effort and seek quick effects, lies the trap of cliché. Cliché is more than just the consequence of simple repetition and familiarity. Were it no more than this, we would have tired long ago with the fundamental forms and structures and indeed content of so many of our art forms. We’d be sick of perspective, rhyme, arpeggios, love, heroism, and all the timeless archetypes that continue to run through all the manifestations of our culture. As Scruton reminds us in his philosophical investigation into the aesthetics of music:
“Standard devices in the classical style are not in themselves clichés: rather, they form part of the grammar of musical utterance. Cliché comes only with the pretence at an effect.”
In other words cliché is about taking the easy road. It is born of insincerity, laziness and cynicism. It comes out of the quest for shortcuts, for cheap and easy effects, without any sincere or authentic motivation and purpose. Cliché is, as Picasso might have said, is the product of merely copying, not properly stealing.
Yet whether one looks to the field of artistic or commercial endeavour, what populates the majority of our stores, screens, malls, galleries, theatres, is precisely this uniform, lazy, stupid copying of accepted forms. Despite all the creative awards and slick case studies, despite the stuff we link to, tweet and blog about, they are merely outliers. The horrible, uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of us produce stuff that’s at best, utterly unremarkable. And at worst is mental and environmental pollution.
Whether they are scientific or artistic, intellectual or visible, tangible or intangible, successful ideas – true acts of creativity – are perfect crimes in action. Theft, done well – intelligently, imaginatively – is nothing to be ashamed of. Cliché however, is a very different matter. It is mere laziness and thuggery.
So here’s to committing more perfect crimes.
W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology. What It Is And How It Evolves
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages
Gordon Burn, Damien Hirst
Milhaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
S. Colum Gilfillan, The Sociology of Invention
Kevin Kelly, ‘The Economics of Ideas’, Wired online, Issue 4.06, June 1996
Paul Romer, ‘Implementing a National Technology Strategy with Self-Organizing Industry Investment Boards’, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity: Microeconomics 2: 345
Paul Romer, ‘Two Strategies for Economic Development: Using Ideas and Producing Ideas’, Proceedings of the World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics, 1992, IBRD/The World Bank, Washington, D.C.
Tania Sanchez, ‘How to connect your nose to your brain’ in Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The Guide
Joseph Schumpeter, Theory of Economic Development
Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music
Abbott Payson Usher, A History of Mechanical Invention
James Webb Young, A Technique For Producing Ideas
If you’re working on sending say, a manned mission to Mars, you’re going to be thinking about, building, and integrating life support systems, medical systems, communication systems, scientific systems, propulsion systems, IT systems… You’re going to be thinking about human ergonomics, nutritional requirements… And the list goes on.
And you’ve got to weave all this complexity together into a coherent, functioning whole in such a way that it successfully accomplishes the mission.
This is what Tim Brown, the president of the design company IDEO calls ‘big design’ – as opposed to the design of aesthetics, fonts and the like.
Now the notion of ‘design thinking’ isn’t new. And it has had its critics. Not least of all because it’s incredibly vague about what it actually is. Even Brown admits that he has yet to come up with a definition. A lot of talk about design thinking seems to focus on the input – multidisciplinary teams, rapid and frequent prototyping, etc.
It seems to me that design thinking (or at least ‘big design’ thinking) is ultimately about building complex, integrated systems for humans to use, inhabit, or interact with. Whether that’s a customer service product, a piece of software, a theme park, a video game, a piece of urban planning. Or even a manned mission to Mars.
As Brown has blogged: “Design has always broken complex systems down into small parts and formed individual components (products, services, buildings, applications) that come together to create system level behaviors.”
So design thinking thinks not just about products. But the relationship between people and products. Between products and other products. And between people and other people.
Design thinking and what we do
Now this may all be fantastically self-indulgent. But I do find this notion of design thinking interesting because the current definitions and perspectives on what we do really aren’t serving us very well.
They don’t adequately describe what we do. They miss out a lot of the things we’re interested in, or need to get interested in. And most importantly of all, they they don’t adequately inspire and guide us to approach challenges differently (or appropriately).
The inadequacy and irrelevance of the notion that we’re in the ‘messaging’ is a pet peeve of mine. Banging on about ‘social’ this and ‘social’ that isn’t much more helpful. We surely need a different and more useful conception of what we do all day.
According to Brown, the experiences we will be creating will be “complex combinations of products, services, space and information.” For him, design thinking is a way of giving form to them. In a world where everything is becoming connected to everything else (or can be connected), this feels like a valuable, perhaps even necessary, perspective.
So thinking of ourselves as designers of experiences might help us more be more deliberate and conscious in our innovation. It might encourages in us, new, additional behaviors. And it might get us asking different things of the stuff we make.
And rather than think of ourselves as making an ad, or a message – a singular isolated object or thing that is piped down to consumers – thinking of ourselves as designers (and our output as design) might get us thinking more about combinations, ecosystems and interactions. It might help shift some of our assumptions and thinking:
From silos to systems
How does it synthesize product, service, space and information?
How do the different elements of product, service, space and information create a coherent experience?
How does it connect to other products, services and platforms?
What other ecosystems is it a part of and does it contribute to?
From assuming passive audiences to active audiences
How is it incomplete without people’s participation?
How does it give people things to do?
How does it reward people’s participation?
From being brand-centered to user-centered
How is it built around the needs and desires of users, rather than around the needs and desires of a marketing department?
From focusing on audience attention to user experience
Is it easy to find?
What is it like to use?
Is it easy to navigate?
How does it engage the senses?
What happens when things go wrong?
From selling to solving
How does it actually solve a real world problem or issue?
How does it enhance a moment, an experience, a transaction, a life?
How does it provide people with access to what they are wanting?
How does it amplify people’s abilities?
How does it accelerate the satisfaction of needs and desires?
How does it make visible and connect like-minded people?
From creating campaigns to platforms
How does it create lasting value?
How does it encourage people to stay?
How will it keep people coming back?
From consumers are receivers to consumers as journeyers and experiencers
How does it start?
Where do people begin?
Where do people come from?
How does it unfold?
What is people’s path through the experience?
What are the on- and off-ramps?
What happens next?
Where do people land up?
From delivering entertainment and/or information to delivering entertainment and/or utility
How is it useful?
Does it provide personal, social, or emotional utility?
I’m not entirely sure. But “What are we designing?” feels like an interesting question to be asking. Or to have at the back of one’s mind.
Certainly it’s a whole lot more useful than “What is the message?” And probably has greater breadth and scope than all the “What’s the conversation?” that gets bandied about.
So perhaps we are all designers now.
And perhaps – despite what they say about our industry- what we do is actually just a tiny little bit exactly like rocket science.
Bret G. Drake, editor, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, ‘Reference Mission Version 3.0, Addendum to the Human Exploration of Mars: The Reference Mission of the NASA Mars Exploration Study Team,’ June 1998
Tim Brown, ‘Design Thinking’, Harvard Business Review, June 2008
Tim Brown, interview with Design Taxi at http://designtaxi.com/article/101286/Design-Thinking-or-How-to-Make-Design-Big-Again
It’s become a little fashionable in some quarters to sneer at the notion of the Big Idea. I’ve never been a huge fan of the language of ‘Big Ideas’. It feels rather pompous and cheesy. However, if there is a vaguely coherent case against big ideas, it seems to go a little like this:
They’re old school
They rely on big budgets (production and media)
They’re the product of TV advertising
They’re dependent on repetition
They’re the product of traditional agencies
They move slowly and not at the speed of culture or the internet
They fail to leverage the economies of the internet
I want to argue that claiming Big Ideas are ‘dead’ – or at least on the life-support system – is nonsense. Certainly dismissing big ideas simply because the language pre-dates Facebook is hardly an argument that would win over any jury. No-one in their right mind after all, would argue against Just Do It or Open Happiness or The Power of Dreams or Smell Like a Man. These are about as big as ideas can get. And they continue to create huge economic value for the brands they promote.
The critical thing here is that they aren’t narrow, executionally-defined advertising campaigns. They are broader and deeper than that. They’re ideas that define the totality of the brand, and as such, they’re capable of encompassing and producing an extraordinarily wide variety of expressions and interactions. They’re capable of housing blockbuster content, but they’re also demonstrably capable of generating more fleet of foot stuff. And they’re brought to life through activity that goes well beyond communications and campaigns.
The Big Idea Is Dead argument is borne of our own careless use of language (indeed as soon as agencies start talking about ideas, you can be fairly guaranteed that some half-baked befuddled nonsense is going to follow).
It’s an argument that looks at the world solely through the lens of execution and expenditure. It assumes that ‘big-ness’ lies solely in high cost execution or big broadcast investment. It sees bigness as only residing in the campaign. Not in the brand. In doing so, it falls into precisely the same trap as the lazy advertiser assuming they have a ‘big idea’ on their hands simply because they have access to bloated production and/or media budgets.
Whatever some might say, big ideas are not dead – because brands still benefit from them. Even if they’re not necessarily brought to life through epic execution and media.
Big Brand Ideas connect with what matters to people. If you want people to notice you, care about you, having strong feelings about you, if you want to stir people’s hearts and minds, be impervious to the offers of competitors, and keep coming back to you, week in week out, or year in and year out, then it helps to connect with something pretty compelling.
Big Brand Ideas (as I think Richard Huntingdon put it) create mental monopolies. In the competition for memory and preference, big brand ideas push aside competitors.
Big Brand Ideas give us a long-term reservoir of meaning and inspiration to draw executional ideas (of whatever size) from. If there isn’t a big idea at the heart of our brand, we’ll struggle to produce small stuff, let alone bigger stuff. And we’ll certainly struggle to produce stuff that steps outside the realm of advertising or communications.
Big Brand Ideas ensure that we are not continuously reinventing the wheel, that we don’t constantly reset the clock to zero and that our actions build on each other.
Big Brand Ideas ensure that however diverse our actions might be, they are coherent enough to build long-term associations in the memory (which is all a brand is).
Big Brand Ideas ensure that we don’t think short-term and merely limp from tactic to tactics. Value is not created through short-term thinking. When the overwhelming evidence is that campaigns rarely, if ever, pay for themselves in the short term only, big ideas ensure that we think about creating long-term economic value for our clients.
Big-ness then is first and foremost an issue for brand strategy. Without a powerful, organizing idea at the heart of our brand, that drives the business forward deliberately, a world of chaos and pain awaits us. The rhetoric of small risks reducing ourselves to a bunch of brand illiterates and short-term tacticians, denying ourselves the opportunity to be anything more valuable or influential.
So ignore all the chatter about big being outmoded.
Find a brand idea that connects with what matters to people. One that has real resonance. Then bring it to life in the most appropriate and imaginative way. Whether that’s through big execution or small.