The evolution of the big idea

Thought I’d share a lecture I threw together for an introductory creative class I teach at BU’s College of Communication. 

I know it’s an overdone topic — The Big Idea, Dead or Alive — but the fact is it will never be resolved and there’s plenty of room for argument on both sides.

If you look at recent efforts — John Lewis Christmas Adverts, My Blood is Red and Black, IBM’s Smarter Planet, Red Bull Stratos — you could argue that big ideas still work if you define a big idea as something that becomes part of the cultural landscape, generates awareness and conversation among many, endures the test of time (or at least dominates the moment), and needs traditional media or advertising to call attention to it.

On the other hand, if you go back to George Lois’s criteria — that it has to change popular culture (rather than reflect it), transform our language, launch a new business or idea, and “turn the world upside down” — well, then that’s another story.

I would argue that we may never see another Marlboro Man or even a Just Do It. But there are qualities and characteristics of the original big ideas that still make for great, effective, compelling and meaningful advertising in a digital age. On that latter note it’s important to acknowledge that ideas do not have to be digital, they have to work in a time where digital dominates.

Gone are the collective experiences where we all tune into the same thing at the same time, save the Super Bowl and national tragedies. So by definition what we make has to be interesting enough to earn attention; shareable because users are the new medium; usable because value is preferred over messages; and finally customizable so that it works for the individual.

Anyway, take a look if you’re inclined and let me know what you think.

Thom Pulliam
Thom Pulliam

Great presentation. Love the historical context and totally agree with your take away.

I believe big ideas still exist and won't ever go away, but how we think of them needs to be reframed for today's context of niche media. The way I see it the shift is from ideas that are compelling to the masses to ideas that are compelling to communities. Furthermore, big ideas today are not messages that inspire envy but rather ones that inspire action. 


Thank you for a simply excellent presentation, Edward. I love your idea of "value over message." I wrote a short piece about how to adjust your campaign around trust and transparency since we all stopped listening to messaging:

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I love this topic Edward. It also has to be put in perspective. Big ideas will always be around. Though often they come incrementally. Apple Newton. Palm Pilot. Blackberry. IPhone. All big ideas in themselves. But evolutionary. 

For advertising the big idea can definitely be cultural without the sales. I hate vegetable juice. But do you know how many times when I was younger and had that DOH! moment I hit my forehead and said I could of had a V-8? Or how many times I took the Nestea plunge but rarely drank the stuff. Or said Where's the beef but closest Wendy's was way to far for me to get too?

You know me to be a cynic but I will not claim any of the above didn't generate plenty of sales for the brands. But I am curious your thoughts. Plenty of TV and Movie scenes change our culture that aren't selling anything. Would you put successful ad campaigns that change popular culture and are impactful without really generating sales in the TV/Movie category of media than say putting them with advertising? 

And even if it doesn't generate sales (I am gagging as I write this because I disagreed with Rob Schwartz on this a few years back) there has to be a value of being talked about? Though without sales poof goes your brand (see

edwardboches moderator

@Howie Goldfarb Seems hard to imagine a campaign that changed culture and had impact but did not generate sales. If that was the case, then I refer to Bernbach, who said that good advertising can make a bad product fail faster. Not sure that A. was either good or big. B. The site and product didn't deliver. But you are right that there will always be some form of the big idea around. Just different from the old big ideas.