A version of this article first appeared in Campaign magazine on September 5th
In recent years, the “Big Idea” has often seemed to epitomise everything wrong and backward looking about our industry. As Joseph Jaffe, author of “Flip the Funnel”, put it:
“I’m sick and tired of this notion that there is a singular BIG IDEA out there…Big ideas are equated to expensive ideas…hence the word Big. Big ideas are similarly, full of hot air, fluff, inflated with self-importance, exaggeration and hyperbole”
How much more compelling the lean manifesto or the Agile movement have seemed – trim and nimble versus the bloated “Big” idea. We have been encouraged to develop minimal viable products, to test, optimise and iterate – all extraordinarily useful approaches when it comes to making things.
The danger is that we apply this approach to our thinking – that we start to think small. There is huge benefit to making small. The challenge is to think big while making small.
Thinking big remains critically important for a number of reasons:
We have big problems – and bigger opportunities: The web is not impacting our clients in small ways. Margins are squeezed, cost of entry is plummeting, transparency is no longer a choice and entire industries are disappearing.
But the web can also impact our clients in incredibly exciting ways. Our ambition should be to fundamentally transform our clients’ businesses in a way that simply wasn’t possible in an analog world-to open up new distribution opportunities, to create new products and new paths to purchase. That calls for big, audacious thinking-the kind of thinking seen on the smallest screens of all at Cannes, where Mobile Lion winners had the audacity to imagine turning every smartphone user into a volunteer in the hunt for missing children.
We need scale to grow: An oft-forgotten truth, as Martin Weigel of Wieden + Kennedy has pointed out lately, is that most brands, in most categories, grow by increasing penetration (scale) not frequency or fandom. In a fragmented media landscape reach will be less and less easy to buy – so we need to create ideas with reach.
We like to share: Precision targeting has been another strike against the blunt instrument that is the big idea. Why use a sledgehammer when you use a scalpel to target individuals with surgical precision? Again, while precision marketing is an extraordinarily useful tool, we must remember the power of shared experiences. The dual screen phenomenon (27,000 tweets in 90 seconds during the X Factor) highlights our overwhelming desire to connect with others. While we are watching more TV on demand, overwhelmingly we are using it to catch up on what our peers have seen rather than discover the new and esoteric.
Yet while big ideas remain critically important, the nature of the big idea has changed.
From Big Ideas to Big Actions – the end of metaphor:
Once upon a time, our big ideas were fantasies. We imagined powerful roles for our brands in consumers’ lives-roles where they connected communities or imbued their users with superhuman powers. We strove to “own” profound emotional territories like Generosity, Joy and Freedom, to convey product truth through ever more visually arresting metaphors. We dreamed of explosions of colour and giant, CGI fish roaming our cities.
We dreamed of buying the world a Coke, teaching the world to sing, giving every child the right to play.
Today, if we can dream it, we can do it – the metaphor is no more.
As Google demonstrated so powerfully with its Project Re: Brief, if we want to buy the world a Coke, we can. If we want to teach the world to sing, or perhaps to read, we can do it through Skype and the awesome force of the “Granny Cloud”. If we want to connect communities, or to give individuals the power to glide through cities, we can create social, crowdsourced traffic applications like Waze.
I worked for many years on the iconic Levi’s brand. In the last few years of my tenure, we developed a big idea: New from the Original. It was a big thought, rooted in a product truth-that every Levi’s product is inspired, in some way, by Levi’s unparalleled archive of vintage denim. We brought it to life in a beautiful film, one that picked up lots of awards and one I’m enormously proud of. Today, though, we could move that idea beyond metaphor to reality. Today, or sometime soon, I could, with the power of 3D printing “print “new clothing direct from the archival originals.
So we still need big, audacious, spine-tingling ideas, but those ideas will be, at their heart, active. As Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism labs says:
“The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are.”
Big Ideas are not (necessarily) big executions
As I mentioned upfront, it’s entirely possible to think big and make small. Big ideas no longer mean 90” TV spots or beautiful, immersive websites. They may do-there is still a powerful role in the industry for craft and for wonder-but they may actually be quite small and simple in execution -and therein may lie the magic.
An example of this “think big, build small” approach is the #SKYREC initiative developed by AgenciaClick Isobar with the SKY TV operator in Brazil. The service synchs users’ SKY accounts with their twitter feeds, enabling them to record a programme with a tweet. A big, business changing idea that in the hands of the user feels simple and delightful.
Perhaps the most current example of the “think big, build small” approach is the Cannes Mobile Grand Prix Winner-TXTBKS from DDB Manila. A big idea to solve a big problem-decreasing use of textbooks in a country where most families cannot afford tablets or e-readers-executed with the simplicity of a text.
Big Ideas are made of people
These effortless user experiences are particularly important in developing today’s big ideas because in an ever more connected world, big ideas are made of people. As we move from metaphors to actions, we move towards ideas that demand interaction, that live, as Mark Earls puts it in “the spaces between individuals”.
Big ideas will increasingly be built in these spaces-in the millions of tiny interactions that make an idea live and spread. They will demand that we think less about individuals and more about networks, that we treat our consumers less as fans and more as actors.
This is an inexact science today. It will become more rigorous. We will see the rise of social experience designers and of network prediction models with ingenious algorithms calibrating the epidemiology of an idea.
This is incredibly important. Agencies that take it seriously and invest in tools and talent will triumph over those who hope “it will go viral”. It doesn’t mean, however, that we should start by thinking granular. Once again, we may think big and build small.
Long live the Big Idea:
The Big Idea is alive and well. It is more important than ever at a time when it is desperately easy to be consumed by minutiae and when our clients have ever bigger problems to solve.
But today’s big ideas are different from yesterday’s. Today’s Big Ideas are not metaphors, but actions. They may not always feel big in execution – we may think big and make deceptively small. They will live in the interactions between people.
The agencies that succeed will be those who can develop big, audacious, business changing ideas and use technology to move those ideas beyond metaphor and into reality, beyond ideas and into actions.