Tagged: Ideas

The Unimportance Of Ideas





“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)

Letting The Thought Fox In




“Something… Is entering the loneliness”
Ted Hughes


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, 
Brilliantly, concentratedly, 
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.


Why It Might Actually Be Just Like Rocket Science


Big design
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

Why Size Still Matters, Big Ideas Aren’t Dead, And ‘Think Small’ Is Dangerous Advice


“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”

Mark Twain

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.