Here's A Big Idea: Forget The Big Idea

For some time now, the creative end of the advertising world has been fixated on the Loisian/Deutschian notion of "The Big Idea." For years, any time my creative team gathered to start brainstorming a new campaign, I would reflexively tense up, waiting for someone to ask the inevitable: "All right, so what's our Big Idea?"

This fixation is understandable. The Big Idea thrills clients; it gets talked about; it wins awards; it generates media buzz. But you can't chase The Big Idea. When you try, you end up moving in the direction of gimmickry and away from serious brand strategy. A campaign that lights up the sky with fireworks will grab attention, sure -- but when the audience turns to look and finds you standing there with an empty mortar in your hand, what have you accomplished?

As the great Bill Bernbach once wrote: "[If] it's just a gimmick, it's going to fall apart anyway." Merely grabbing attention isn't enough. You need to create a meaningful connection with your audience, or else that attention will dissolve away in an eye blink and -- click -- they've moved on to the next channel.



Our job, then, is not to generate The Big Idea; it's to get an audience to fall in love with a brand. How? Well, that is the Big Question (actually, one of three Big Questions, which I'll get to in a moment).

How to not do it was summed up cleanly by a colleague of mine in D.C. recently: "You can't force a perception," he said. "For example, I would never walk up to a girl in a bar and say, 'Hi, my name is J. I'm handsome, charismatic, and very interesting.' That would never work. I need to get her to arrive at those conclusions on her own." That's the handle, right there. When you start a new campaign with that goal in mind -- guiding your audience to think what you want them to think about your brand -- you're starting in the right place.

So instead of chasing down The Big Idea, we begin by asking three Big Questions:

1. What do you want people to think about your brand?

2. Is what you want realistic? (A guy will never get a girl to believe he's handsome and charismatic and interesting if he's not. You have to leverage your best true qualities.)

3. Once you have it down, what messages can you send into the ethos -- and from what sources, and via what channels -- that will bring your audience to this desired conclusion?

In developing a new campaign, your goal should be to effectively answer these questions. The process of doing so is the creative process itself. And in serving that process, The Big Idea will reveal itself to you.

But, again, you can't chase it. The ill-conceived brain drops that fall in the brainstorm room rarely, if ever, turn up awe-inspiring blossoms.

2 comments about "Here's A Big Idea: Forget The Big Idea ".
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  1. Robert Wheatley from Emergent -- The Healthy Living Agency, March 16, 2011 at 12:59 p.m.

    Does a big idea have to begin with casting it in context of an ad or positioning statement? Can't we train ourselves to think more universally that a big idea might be best defined as something that radically and obviously impacts the behavior of a brand or business. If an idea imbues a brand with a higher purpose and thus becomes instantly recognize-able as a communications platform, this might be a better place to start.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 13, 2011 at 5:43 p.m.

    Gypsy Rose Lee.

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