It may no longer be about the big idea, but those little ideas better be damn good

mad mugThis week, Mitch Joel wrote a thought-provoking piece suggesting that it’s time for brands to abandon pursuit of the big idea.  As with all good posts, this one inspired lots of comments, many of them advancing the conversation, but most of them predictably agreeable.

From what I can tell, however, none of those comments come from brands or advertisers who might actually know whether big ideas still hold value. Nor did they come from people who’ve actually conceived big ideas themselves. By that I’m referring to things like The Ultimate Driving Machine, Just Do It, Got Milk, or Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty.

My guess is there’s not a brand in the world that wouldn’t die for an idea like that.

So in one way, Mitch is dead wrong. Brands still want a big idea.

But if by big idea he means a Superbowl spot, or the multi-million dollar TV campaign or the single, overly produced flash heavy website, then Mitch is dead right.

A big idea can only succeed if it can be executed in a lot of little ideas. Why? I think you know the answer. Your consumer isn’t sitting around waiting for a message. For starters if she wants to know about you, she’ll either conduct a search of ask someone on Twitter. If she wants to be amused or entertained she’s got an iPhone and YouTube. And let’s face it; if she is watching TV, she probably has a DVR system.

Mitch refers to the days portrayed in MadMen — “wooing the big clients and winning them over with one pitch and one big idea “ — to draw a distinction between a time when a single concept worked and now.

Interestingly, the show MadMen markets itself with lots of little ideas: the poster of Don Draper up to his waist in water; coffee mugs with a dotted line an inch from the rim reminding you that’s how much whiskey to pour; a viral avatar that’s all over Twitter; and a rare willingness to relinquish control of the brand to the evangelists who want a role in promoting it.  Each one of these ideas is pretty darn good, definitely effective, and cumulatively better than any single execution could ever be.

Which brings me to the real point. As Mitch suggests, we may need more than a singular big idea, but our little ideas better not be small. Our little ideas have to be Big Little Ideas. Otherwise they’ll never grab attention, be remembered, inspire engagement and drive results.

What do you think? Big ideas? Little ideas? Or Big little ideas?

33 comments
Anthony Butler
Anthony Butler

Best small idea I ever saw:

Business Card for a handyman in NYC.

COPY:
John Simpson-Handyman
TAGLINE: "No job too small"
212-355-8675

ART:
Card had been ripped in half and stapled back together.

edward boches
edward boches

MBSI:
Not familiar with the Russell post, but now you have me intrigued. Will have to go find it.
Thanks.

Eamon Gilmartin
Eamon Gilmartin

I'm in agreement with the conclusion. The big idea is the glue that holds together a ton of brilliant executions.

So, all I can add is this story about the BMW tagline. I was once privileged enough to own a 1973 BMW 3.0. Power windows, sunroof and a beast of an engine. My step-dad once told me that this is the car the line, "The Ultimate Driving Machine" was written about. It was intended as a headline but the brilliant writer showed it to his brilliant Creative Director and the line became a big idea. The headline that ran instead? "Bavarian Cream Puff."

I haven't been able to confirm this story even with the vast archival power of the internet but if anyone out there can, I'd love to know.

edward boches
edward boches

Eamon,
Based on what I know, you are half right. The original ad was Introducing the Ultimate Driving Machine. It was done by Ammirati and Puris, great NY agency, since folded into someone else. Here is link to article on tagline http://bit.ly/VtYJc. In the old days, Joe O'Neill a copywriter there wrote some remarkable prose. I have headlines like "The forerunner of imitators to come," committed to memory. I studied those ads. They were brilliant. Thanks for the reminder.

David Saxe
David Saxe

Interesting...our agency has struggled with departmentalization (if that's not a word, it is now). Projects pass from UX to Creative to Development and so forth. I'm a huge proponent of utilizing each department in every step. Reality is that there are usually budget challenges if you have an hourly model, but I couldn't agree more that these groups need to be brought into every step of the engagement.
If I'm being totally honest, I've just begun to prioritize this over the last year and seen tremendous success from it. The challenge has been getting the UX, developers, analytics folks to think as creatively as the creative team. It's a shift for them.
.-= David Saxe´s last blog ..I’m Not Ready for the Big Idea to Die =-.

edward boches
edward boches

David:
Didn't mean it that way. Just not sure what else there is to say. Time for us to go and do it. Yes? Generate big ideas and bring them to life in new ways. As for "concepting" phase, my interest is in redefining creative team to include UX people, more developers, folks who know who to create memes and concepts that propagate, not just guess that they can come up with a video that might be viral. Hoping to see agencies (ad ones anyway) change quickly. Let me know what works for you.

David Saxe
David Saxe

I certainly read the post - my disagreement was more so with the concept of the Big Idea being dead (not your point). I'm in total agreement with the idea that the way we define the big idea must change.
I'm hearing in discussion around this topic that the way we approach the concepting phase needs to change with the added mediums we now have to work with. This is where I struggle a bit. The implementation of the idea is where the approach and the players have certainly changed.

Idea for next week's topic: would love to hear your approach at Mullen to internal culture. Sorry to burn ya out on this topic - I'm late to the party. :)
.-= David Saxe´s last blog ..I’m Not Ready for the Big Idea to Die =-.

edward boches
edward boches

David:
If you actually look at what I said, I pretty strongly suggested that any brand would kill for a big idea like Nike, or Dove, or Axe. However, what I am suggesting and am quite confident about is that over time, we will need to build those big ideas differently. Here, imagine that in three years from now TV, radio, outdoor and print are all gone and that your consumers are even more divided in their use of media, social and otherwise. What are you going to do? How will your big idea be brought to life? Will you make a movie? Name all the bridges in America? Buy the stop signs or lines in the road? Create a meme that spreads? Hire consumers to speak on your behalf? What will you create? Chances are it will not be a message that builds the big idea.
I am now ready to move on to next week's topic. Got any big ideas for what that might be? :-)

David Saxe
David Saxe

Thanks for extending the discussion and linking to Mitch's post. I've spent the better part of the week noodling on this idea. I'm going to have to (very) respectfully disagree with the notion that the Big Idea is dead and needs to be approached as a lot more little ideas.
I'll avoid repetition in this discussion and refer back to Ben's comment above and your response, Edward.
Though the way we approach it may be changing, the potential impact of the BI hasn't changed, I don't believe. Little ideas compared to the Big Idea is analogous to aspects of a culture compared to the culture as a whole. We can entice our audiences with attractive aspects of a culture but inviting them into that culture still has the long-term ability to change consumer behavior.
This discussion inspired my latest blog post below in which I build on this idea through personal experience (I refer back to this post).
"Nike could roll out a series of little ideas to get me to buy a pair of running shoes. Just Do It, on the other hand, doesn’t just make me want to buy a pair of running shoes—it makes me want to become an athlete." We have more media through which to persuade, but I don't think this is any different in 2009.
.-= David Saxe´s last blog ..I’m Not Ready for the Big Idea to Die =-.

Dirk Singer
Dirk Singer

I recently looked at pitches where we weren't successful and more often than not it was because there wasn't a 'Dove real beauty' or what not there - a single thing that hits them between the eyes.

Instead what we presented may have been (in our opinion) commercially right, but it was too complicated and we lost them.

Clients want to be flattered. To be told that what they have is the best thing since sliced bread and that we're going to make them famous.

A jig saw type campaign where the various pieces fit together might be correct, but I'm not convinced it's what they want to hear.

edward boches
edward boches

Dirk:
That is a great point. But combine it with Ben M's need to propagate and Ben K's thoughts on media and connection, while it may be brilliant, it won't be enough. That consumer is more elusive than ever. The trick, I still think, is to build it out of lots of those Big Little Ideas, all true to the driving idea. Again, that being said, won't the role, definition, and skill of the next generation creative person have to adapt?

Alan Wolk
Alan Wolk

Thanks Ben K for point me to his via Twitter.

Edward: The big ideas you cite approvingly all have one thing in common: they're very broad ideas that a host of different notions can live under. "Just Do It" can pretty much be slapped on anything sports-oriented and uplifting.

Which is exactly why it still works in today's media environment.

The problem with the "Big Idea" as interpreted by ad agencies and clients, is that it's way too narrow. So instead of "The Ultimate Driving Machine" you get "the only nutritious cereal that's low in sugar" or something similar.

That positioning works for a television commercial and a couple of print ads, but it's terribly constricting for online media, particularly the social webs where the "push" mentality is absent. Consumers just tune out those kind of messages.

So, to answer your question, it's not so much the Big Idea that's dead, but our definition of it. We have to learn to make a distinction between the types of big, broad ideas that work today and the narrow, old school big ideas that too many clients and agencies continue to cling to.

Ana Andjelic, Noah Brier and I (among others) had a great discussion about this over on Ana's blog i [love] marketing, a couple of months ago: http://bit.ly/15B3BD - a little deep, but worth reading.
.-= Alan Wolk´s last blog ..Location, Location, Location =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Alan:
You nailed it. The definition of what constitutes BI must change. Which means the people chartered with coming up with them must change. I will check out Ana's blog post haste. Thanks for pointing it out.

mtlb
mtlb

(To clarify, ...“less” need for traditional media.)
.-= mtlb´s last blog ..“It’ll go great next to my Herring.” =-.

mtlb
mtlb

I was at the recent PSFK Good Ideas talk in NYC and Gill Lenton of The Joneses had an interesting take. (You can follow from 10:24 of the transcript on Agency Spy.) She basically said “...brands are schizophrenic when they're not borne out of one big strategic creative idea and I don’t believe that’s ever gonna change.”

Others believed big clients like big agencies and their big ideas. I disagree with Gill on one thing: Not all brands need that big idea to guide them, as there are a newer breed of companies out there challenging traditional agency-client models relative to creative.

These are the ones who know what their brand is and seem better suited to spreading the message in non-traditional ways without the need for traditional media.

edward boches
edward boches

Mtlb:
I think that brands need a big idea in that they need someone to tell them what they stand for (if they don't know). The best brands know already. I think this is a great conversation. Still the real challenge is, in a world that is totally consumer controlled, where the majority of encounters will be digital, where TV (not necessarily video, but paid TV) will play a smaller and smaller role, what should creative people strive to create? Messages? Utility? Encounters? Memes? Conversations? Is Nike Plus a big idea? Is Kogi BBQ creating a business with a roach coach and a Twitter handle a big idea? Was MadMen giving it's characters away to loyal fans a big idea? If not, what are they? For sure they can build brands or at least keep consumers engaged. And if that's the case, what skills will it take? Writing and art direction? Or something else? We have SEO types arguing for search, PR folks claiming it's reputation management, digital agencies saying everything is interactive, and so called traditional agencies still trying to be a little bit of everything but having a hard time overcoming their muscle memory. If I were a CMO, I'd be confused. No wonder they can't keep their jobs. Let's figure it out for them. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

edward boches
edward boches

Bens: How convenient. Love the propagation idea. Ben M and I talked about that last week as one of the big opportunities inherent in crowdsourcing. It strikes me that if this conversation continued it moves in the direction of the consumer role, essential to both propagation but also receptivity to begin with. Consumers not only have preferred ways of interacting with categories and brands but with content and media as well as Ben K suggests. More importantly they each play multiple roles at different times in relation to different kinds of products or categories. To inspire and encourage them begs the question: is the future creative person a writer? An art director? A developer? Or a master of memetics? (Now there's a label even better than "social media guru.") Seems we might have to be all four or at least learn to think that way if we're to be successful.

American Copywriter
American Copywriter

At the risk of sounding "predictably agreeable," I'm with you, Edward. It's a big, unifying and relevant idea expressed through loads of other ideas (some little, some big). When it all works together it helps brands climb the ladders in people's heads. Easier said than done. But that's what needs to get done. And what else do we have to do with our time? Cheers.
.-= American Copywriter´s last blog ..Art & Copy: The Movie. Hell yes. =-.

Ben Kunz
Ben Kunz

Edward, thanks. I think Ben Malbon touches on the solution -- success requires propagation more than ideation.

Andrew Jaffe, former editor of Adweek, had a similar point in his 2003 book "Casting for Big Ideas." Media planning (what our agency does) is moving from targeting demographics and psychographics to complete communication "contact management." This isn't just adding social media and mobile to the mix. Agencies and brands need to understand, for example, how mothers get together with their children throughout the week, if that dynamic is what their idea is trying to intercept.

Ben's "powerful and resonate" ideas do need to "morph and fragment" into the reality of how people interact -- with each other, and within their own minds. Because media is now so fragmented, and because consumers have so many disparate modalities (I'm a father, agency director, athlete, musician, reader, lover, son, and wannabe social media hipster), perhaps a series of big ideas is important for any brand.

Love the little big idea concept. Would love to see examples of how it's executed.

Cheers again.
.-= Ben Kunz´s last blog ..Now on Twitter, bet your followers =-.

Ben Malbon (BBH Labs)
Ben Malbon (BBH Labs)

Real people don't think in terms of 'executions' or 'big ideas' or 'channels'.

We have to get used to understanding that giving birth to powerful and resonant ideas is just part of the challenge. How those ideas live, morph, fragment and become interactive is the bigger opportunity.

We fetishize invention when we might be more concerned about propagation.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
.-= Ben Malbon (BBH Labs)´s last blog ..GOOD Magazine crowdsources world-changing ideas =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Ben:
An interesting and unarguable point that the consumer will play a bigger and bigger role in determining what constitutes a BI. So I agree with that. At the same time, allowing a media perspective for a moment, where that consumer is and what they are doing (searching? solving? socializing? creating? playing? seeking mindless or even thought provoking entertainment?) determines whether or not they are even receptive to some form of engagement or messaging. My point (I suppose among many) is that as communicators and creative people, what does this all mean? For one, that we can never really think in terms of single executions. And two, we need a new definition of what even constitutes a BI along with the willingness, know how and talent to bring it to life, make it resonate culturally, allow it to involve the consumer, if not encourage their participation. Sure a BI can be an amazing documentary, or a viral meme, or an experience, or a new way to hand the brand over to the consumer, or something even bigger, say, like Bono's Red. For creative people it means opening their minds to all of these new possibilities and learning to think outside the :30TV spot and the confinements of the two dimensional plane.

Ben Kunz
Ben Kunz

"Idea Share"

Perhaps, Edward, ideas must fight for market share across *all* brand categories. Just as other industry competition falls into power laws where a small minority lead in market share, some ideas always end up leading in "idea share." Think of it as one vast "idea industry," with savvy consumers trying to determine which marketing messages are worth elevating to the top, whether it comes from Obama's political campaign or the Maytag repair guy. Consumers have brand ladders in their heads for watches, cars, computers -- so why not marketing's big ideas? We can only take so many big ones at a time.

This cuts across all idea categories -- meaning consumers rank all brand messaging against each other, and only let a few really rise to the top. This is usually tied to the ecosystem context of the generation.

Consider: Apple's 1984 took off right when consumers were puzzling over personal computers. BMW's "ultimate driving machine" launched in 1975, but really scaled in the Reagan hyperconsumerism of the 1980s. Nike's "just do it" tapped the rising weekend warrior workout ethic of the 1980s. Today, Twitter's big idea is a fail whale, and yet we all keep it high in our heads because society is coming to grips with networked relationships.

My point is yes, there can still be big ideas in marketing, but winning this battle means recognizing *across all brands* that consumers digest marketing messages with room for only a few winners, and those are often tied to the keen interest of society at the time.

Perhaps the exercise for any brand that wants to ring the bell is to think one level up from their competitive set and to explore society as a whole -- how does your story fit into the ethos of the day? And how is it positioned against the other, biggest ideas across all brand categories? As Trout might say, in the battle for "ideas" in our minds, we only have room for a few.
.-= Ben Kunz´s last blog ..Now on Twitter, bet your followers =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Scott:
All good points. Reminds us also that it's a lot easier to talk about and write about big ideas than to conceive them, sell them, bring them to life. Which by the way is a reason to embrace social media and crowdsourcing. For even those among us good enough to come up with them typically do so in just one small space and in the form of messages more than inclusive experiences. It's the latter looking for new versions of the BI.

@scottRcrawford
@scottRcrawford

Great conversation and examples all around. You bring up a great point, Edward, about what is meant by the term Big Idea. While Just Do It is a tagline to die for, it's the idea behind it, human joy of physical endeavor for its own reward, that serves as the unwavering big idea that is served by pretty much any and every "little idea" with a swoosh on it.

The big idea behind The Ultimate Driving Machine is the experiential promise to the driver conveyed in those words. Not the words, but the experience that can only be delivered by a company run by driving enthusiast engineers.

I love nothing more than plastering a wall with lots and lots and lots and tons of great ideas of all shapes and sizes. Making dirty paper. Sometimes the tiny ones are so cool they defy logic. What I love most is when all those small ideas flow from the same wellspring that feeds a brand relationship. That's discipline, the framework that gives you freedom to bop and improvise and always come back to the melody.

Thanks again. Always a pleasure.

Ben Malbon (BBH Labs)
Ben Malbon (BBH Labs)

Edward, enjoyed the post. Great topic. It's been exercising us over at BBH Labs for some time. It's a big debate.

Have a read of a recent Labs post that tackles this very issue in full; the post can be found here: http://bit.ly/199uWk

In summary, we conclude as follows:

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 we're 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 commoditize what we do
4. We lose some of our best thinkers & creators
5. We create confused brands

Would love to know what you think.
.-= Ben Malbon (BBH Labs)´s last blog ..GOOD Magazine crowdsources world-changing ideas =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Ben:
I should have just hired you to write my post. As always, your arguments are sound and well thought out. I'm with you on your definition of a big idea (after a few blog posts and comments the phrase alone starts to sound cliche, doesn't it) and the need for it. At the center of my argument is the simple notion that as long as we redefine what constitutes a BI -- how it gets expressed, whether or not it's even an expression, the need for significant consumer participation -- we'll be OK. In fact we'll have more opportunity to create and fresh and exciting ways. Just time to stop thinking message based big ideas. Will check out your posts post haste.

Lisa Hickey
Lisa Hickey

I’ve always defined a big idea as something that will “capture the imagination of the general public and become a part of popular culture for years to come”. And, guess what happens when you do that? It drives sales just about every single time.

But it’s a tall order, and damn hard to do that. And what I also think is true is that it’s harder and harder to have a big idea that's based on a singular line of copy, a slogan, or one iconic image. But when you DO have an idea that’s big enough, it becomes capable of being translated into hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of small ideas that reinforce that big idea, yet surprises and delights in its own way (the MadMen coffee cup being a great example).

I don’t think that a brand that has a lot of little *disconnected* ideas is doing itself any favors.

But one singular vision rolled out in a thousand different ways? Ahhh, now you’re onto something.
.-= Lisa Hickey´s last blog ..blinker =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Lisa,
A singular vision versus a singular idea. Definitely. Like that. But those thousand different ways each have to be as creative in their own way, or at least as relevant, as an old fashioned big idea. (I know you know that.) We may be engaging with consumers in a hundred different places but there is still competition for their time and energy in each one. More importantly, if we want them to play a role, engage, invent, socialize, etc. (other than doing something stupid or wrong which will definitely get them talking), we need to inspire them with those little ideas. I want to show people my MadMen mug.

Nishad
Nishad

Edward, one of the things about all the big ideas you mention are that they have been built on smaller ideas that sustained them. Some of these ideas may not have been seen as big ideas in the first place, I think. Just do it apparently started off as a slap on. If someone bought you The Ultimate Driving Machine as a line today, would you really consider it? In the past you could sign off every ad you did with a line so that people could see it and connect the company or brand to it. How would Dell sum up all the disparate work they are doing these days?
.-= Nishad´s last blog ..Viral Marketing. Does Uk Get It Better? =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Nishad:
Very good point. I think it would take a visionary creative director (and trust me there aren't too many of them out there) who would be able to project all of the potential in a single line. More often than not one wants to see all the little pieces first and evaluate them individually, knowing what they can add up to. Nothing wrong with that. Alex Bogusky is known for saying, "Show me the press release," which means he wants to know what the outcome in the marketplace will be. What's the buzz, who's talking about it, what's the press coverage. If you start there, with the desired consumer reaction, you might have a better way to back into the big idea. Then again, if you use social media right, you might also be able to turn a Big Small Idea into a Big Idea, just by spreading it.

Seth Simonds
Seth Simonds

I've never worked in an ad agency or been on a marketing team in charge of communicating with an agency in an effort to meet goals for a brand.

That said, here's my thought:

Consider BMW.

What do they want their marketing efforts to do for them? Oversimplified: They want to sell cars.

Before social media, BWM wanted to sell cars.

They still want to sell cars.

If a 30-second Super Bowl spot won't sell cars, then it shouldn't be suggested as an option.

If paying Britney Spears $567 every time she tweets about how cool her BMW is will sell cars? Then I suppose that's the next big idea.

And what about the process leading up to the presentation of "The Big Idea"? Didn't that idea start out as just one of the dishes in a brainstorm buffet? Isn't it safe to assume that they also considered, "The Premier Road Experience" and "A Superior Driving Machine" alongside what turned into a 30+ year Big Idea?

What about the iterations of that idea that come after the client signs on?

MadMen is doing a great job. They keep playing around with social media. (Back when Twitter was smaller, I had terribly droll DM conversations with the people playing MM characters on Twitter.) They're flexible and when something doesn't work or wears out, they change things up.

I think they're able to do that because they know what their ultimate goal is: To drive viewers to MadMen and sell associated products.
.-= Seth Simonds´s last blog ..Fake Experts, Broken Blogging, and a Real Solution =-.

edward boches
edward boches

Seth:
You may be blessed that you never had either of those jobs ;-). What's interesting in our business is the new definition of what even constitutes a big idea. It was probably epitomized by things like Apple's 1984 TV spot, or our Monster.com "When I grow up," spot. Two commercials that put brands on the map and were remembered as the defining moments in the creation of those brands. That rarely happens anymore. In fact it can't. So then what is a big idea? A tagline? A program? Lots of little ideas? A consistent brand image that is always presented with thought, cleverness and consumer involvement (MadMen, Axe for Men come to mind.) It think it's the latter. But it calls for strategy, creative, technology, and distribution (what we once called media) to work together in new ways. Fun figuring it out.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Comment! Interesting discussion out at Edward Boches Creativity Unbound blog on how important it is these days to get smaller ideas working better. In an age where many people are writing off big ideas (This is a great read from BBH Labs) as irrelevant, Edward feels that there’s not a brand out there that does not think it is important to have a big idea. But since they are so rare and elusive, maybe we need to get really good smaller ideas that build into the big brand thought. It was Russell Davies who started this debate in 2006, in a post called the Tyranny of the big idea, where he wrote that the first and foremost thing a brand needs to do is to be interesting. And interesting by saying new things or old things in new ways. So you go out and create smaller ideas that build into the big mother theme. In fact reading Russell’s post again, I discovered an interesting nugget that could become a whole post by itself. The politics of a big idea, on how when agencies and marketing departments think they have nailed a big idea, they just get stuck to it as if it is gospel and by the time they discover the big idea isn’t working anymore, it’s all too late for the brand. Russell has some advice on how to constantly create a bunch of small ideas. There are lots of interesting bits on ideas big and small and how maybe we could go out and get them right. Also don’t miss out on the comments under each of these posts. We think questioning the big idea is like shaking up the foundations of our business and many people have extreme views on this one. As we discovered on Edward’s post. […]