“You will never win fame and fortune unless you invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.” David Ogilvy
David Ogilvy is credited with coining the term that has defined the objectives of ad agency creative departments for more than 50 years ago. The “Big Idea” was a concept or story or tagline or execution that that could define a brand, capture the attention and imagination of a mass audience,and motivate consumers to buy. If it was truly big it could endure for years (Think Melts In Your Mouth Not In Your Hands, or Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin, (bad, but big) or even Tastes Great, Less Filling).
Depending on who was applying the term BIs weren’t necessarily creative, just familiar.
George Lois, one of the great creatives from the 1960’s and beyond, the man behind DDB’s original VW campaign, has been a one-man spokesperson for the virtue of the big ideas for three decades.
Lois believed that the Big Idea was all that mattered in advertising.
A big idea can change popular culture. (VW and the small car)
It can transform our language. (I want my MTV)
It can start a business. (Tommy Hilfiger)
It can turn the world upside down. (Not sure about that one)
As a result, George spent his entire career “creating vivid human images that catch people’s eyes, penetrate their minds, warm their hearts and cause them to act.”
All good stuff no doubt. But today we have to ask just how much easier it was, not necessarily to come up with a Big Idea, but for that idea itself to accomplish all of the above when there was such limited media and content competing for attention.
Historically, most big advertising ideas have been made-up stories, taglines, and campaigns that tell you something memorable about a brand or product.
It’s as if the role of advertising were to invent a story about a product rather than invent a product that had a story.
The former is traditional advertising, the latter is Silicon Valley and perhaps a few of the newer, more innovative agencies that build things not just say things.
In “traditional” advertising, there were different kinds of Big Ideas. They shared certain characteristics. They explained, illuminated and differentiated with memorable images or lines. They offered a fresh and surprising (at the time) solution to a communication challenge. The possessed a strong, singular concept. And if they weren’t outrageous, at least they were unexpected for the category.
Some of advertising’s Big Ideas included:
Marlboro: A Big Idea That Was Totally Contrived
There’s the Marlboro Man. If ever a story about a product were totally invented, Marlboro was it.
BMW: A Big Idea That Captures The Essence Of The Product
In the 1980’s BMW’s The Ultimate Driving Machine was a “Big Idea” from the ad agency Amirati and Puris. Unlike Marlboro, however, it released the truth about the product rather than invent something entirely make believe.
Perhaps one of the really great “Big Idea” ad campaigns of the last 20 years was Apple’s Think Different. Created by Jobs and his agency partner Lee Clow at then Chiat Day (now TBWA Chiat Day), Think Different expressed Apple’s beliefs, its soul, and the vision of Steve Jobs who has just returned to the company after having been forced out years earlier.
The reason for the campaign was to solidify the base — the core loyalists — who believed in Apple and Job. At the time, however, Apple had lousy products and nothing great in the pipeline. And so this was an important placeholder that gave a glimpse of greatness to come. It articulated a
vision for the company, its employees and those tenacious loyalists.
From 1987 to 1997, MasterCard (Research) maxed out five advertising campaigns – and failed to narrow the gap with Visa. So when the company decided to get a new ad agency, it looked like desperation. To McCann Erickson, it looked like opportunity.
McCann assigned a core creative team of three – Joyce King Thomas, Jeroen Bours, and Jonathan Cranin – to prepare a pitch. The trio, who had been working together for two years, conferred with the strategy team and brainstormed intensively for a month. “We were very comfortable working together, so we debated everything freely,” says Thomas, now McCann’s chief creative officer in New York City.
The breakthrough came to Cranin in the shower: the tag line “some things money can’t buy” to anchor the ad. Back at the office, Thomas caught the spark and began crafting a spot around it. Inspiration struck two weeks later, as Thomas and Bours batted around ideas over coffee and bagels on a Sunday morning.
The first ad would be set at a baseball game, feature a list of ordinary transactions, and lead to the setup: “Priceless.” Recalls Thomas: “We knew we had it.”
MasterCard agreed, even after a different spot tested better in research. “Intuitively, we knew the insights made it more than just another ad,” says chief marketing officer Larry Flanagan, then head of U.S. advertising. Gut feeling proved right. Since 1997, MasterCard has added new U.S. credit cards at more than twice Visa’s rate.
And the award-winning campaign’s versatile format and simple appeal have also made it a global winner: Spots have been tweaked for audiences in 105 countries and 48 languages.” — By Eugenia Levenson in article called Six Teams that Changed the World.
California Milk Board: A Big Idea That Reframed The Familiar
Got Milk is another “big idea” ad campaign that worked a bit differently. It framed a familiar and taken-for-granted product in a new way: deprivation. Getting you to think about the product not as a healthy beverage but as a necessary accompaniment to foods you love.
Original "got milk?" commercial – Who shot Alexander Hamilton?
More recently, we continue to see traditional advertising campaigns that can be considered “big ideas,” though this one — unlike Marlboro (which tries to imbue the product and user with certain qualities), or The Ultimate Driving Machine (which is a label for the product), or Think Different (which is about a brand belief), or Priceless (which is about an emotional benefit the brand wants to associate with) — is a big idea that is really nothing more than a creative executional device. Granted it is brilliantly done, well written, and clearly has endurance (it’s one of David Ogilvy’s early criteria), but it as pure an advertising idea as could be. Makes you think that big ideas can still work.
Today, however, we have a lot of debate about the value of a big idea. With fragmented media, the challenge of buying attention, the need to connect with people in different places and different times, on their terms, perhaps the big idea is over-rated.
“The big idea is dead. There are no more big ideas. Creative leaders should go for getting lots and lots of small ideas out there. Stop beating yourself up searching for the one big idea. Get lots of ideas out there and then let the people you interact with feed those ideas and they will make it big.”
So says Kevin Roberts Saatchi & Saatchi CEO
He also suggested a lot of other aspects of advertising are dead, too.
This, of course, is a cliche. Many of us have been writing about the virtue of small ideas for a long time. (You know that by the time a holding company CEO starts touting a message it’s been in the marketplace for years.)
Many of these posts go back to 2009. But perhaps it’s not so much that the Big Idea is no longer needed, it’s that we need many more different kinds of ideas because we can’t reach the masses with one, in one place, not even in a SuperBowl commercial.
So if Coke’s big idea is Happiness, it has Polar Bear TV spots, but also Internet connected machines that create experiences and yield content.
If Zappos’s big idea is (coincidence) Happiness, it has service that delivers on, boxes that declare it, advertising that captures it and fun viral events that demonstrate it.
And if Nike’s Big Idea is Achieve Your Potential (Just Do It), they not only have advertising, they create products and utility like Nike + and Fuel Band.
Others, too argue that The Big Idea, if not dead, can no longer be an advertising idea. A tagline or a campaign won’t do it. It’s more likely that new Big Ideas are rooted in technology and the building of something.
Bigger Big Ideas / By Nick Parish / Contagious Magazine
The evolution of the Ad Agency has always lagged, and new types of companies continue to add value in its stead. The Philosophers, the Te…
We live in the much vaunted Age of Information. Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively. There are trillions upon trillions of bytes out there in the ether — so much to gather and to think about.’
And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.
Marx pointed out the relationship between the means of production and our social and political systems. Freud taught us to explore our minds as a way of understanding our emotions and behaviors. Einstein rewrote physics. More recently, McLuhan theorized about the nature of modern communication and its effect on modern life. These ideas enabled us to get our minds around our existence and attempt to answer the big, daunting questions of our lives.
But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.
The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.
We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information. Where are you going? What are you doing? Whom are you seeing? These are today’s big questions.
But, if the Big Idea is so dead, culturally and advertising wise, how do you explain this? Old Spice (or we could put Dove here, or the Guardian, or any number of other brands that are still creating huge, game-changing impact with advertising.
Maybe we should re-write the definition of the Big Idea
Let’s for a moment argue that what made the Big Idea big was that it became omnipresent. That it reached the masses. That it was embodied in a single tagline (Just Do It) or image (Marlboro man) that lived for many years across many media. That it was primarily a message. Designed or conceived only to get you to notice a brand or product, pay attention to it, perhaps like it and hopefully buy it. If everyone saw the ad at the same time you did, and approved of its message or embraced the concept, you, as a consumer had permission to buy that product. It was OK.
Those days may be gone. The Internet, technology and the proliferation of media may have changed it. The fact that our attention can rarely be bought, even if we watch a lot of TV and video, that it has to be earned, that it turns to multiple screens and platforms to focus and that it quickly moves on certainly suggests we need new kinds of ideas.
No, we don’t need digital ideas. (Watch out for that label.) What we need are ideas for a digital world.
We need ideas that are interesting, shareable, useable, customizable. Consumers, if not also producers, are at the least a powerful distribution channel.
The real challenge is that we need amazing ideas no matter what size they are. Which means we need our small ideas to be big — if big means something that catches your attention (even a utility has to be noticed before it gets used), fills a genuine need; makes you feel great about using (or reading or engaging); and whose brilliance inspires you to pass it on.
Encouraging small, individual ideas is great. But we can’t let small ideas free us from striving for great ideas.
Big can be small, cheap and underproduced. Think Shocking Barack from a few years ago,
Big can be an event seen by no one until the video of it goes viral. TNT Square.
Duke Ellington said there were only two kinds of music. Good and bad. We could possibly end this debate entirely with an agreement that there are only two kinds of ideas. Good and bad.
Once good ideas were big, clever, fresh, original, memorable, motivating and enduring.
Today perhaps all that’s changes is that they are useful, shareable and participatory. They may be one shots. They may be home made. They may be campaigns. They may be supported by millions. Or thousands.
But one thing is sure. Whether they’re big is no longer up to the creator. It’s up to the user.