The Calgary Marketer

Updates, commentary & more about marketing from Art Graddon


The big idea is dead. Or is it?

My formative years in the advertising industry were spent working for the pre-eminent direct marketing agency of its time. This was the era when direct marketing was the new golden child (much like digital became years later). All the multi-national ad agencies had acquired a direct marketing agency and everyone was talking about a new type of integrated marketing.

Those of us on the direct marketing side of the business drank our own kool aid. We fervently believed that “general advertising”, with its emphasis on creative and “the big idea” rather than response and results, was a self-indulgent, undisciplined affair. We had faith that this wasteful approach to the spending of marketing dollars would see its comeuppance soon and its practitioners lose their iron grip on clients. Direct marketing, with its emphasis on creative in service of response, was rising to take its rightful place on the throne.

Well, it didn’t happen that way of course. Direct did indeed continue its growth and evolution, and for good reason. But it never displaced the leading role of the creative culture in the marketing communications industry.

Now I see frequent articles and posts claiming that creativity in marketing and specifically “the big idea” are past retirement age, supplanted by data and analytics driven communications, programmatic tactics, fragmented customer segments, consumer-controlled communication, message customization and other practices and beliefs of this incredible technology-driven era in marketing.

It all sounds familiar. Trouble is, it’s just not true. (Look carefully when you see these claims. They are usually being made by the purveyors of the technology and rarely by clients themselves. Can’t blame them. It’s what I would do to try to get people to look at my tech.)

The reason why ideas remain critical drivers for marketing is simple:  nothing captures the imagination and inspires one to action with more fervour and success than a compelling, relevant idea well communicated. It’s just simply not a left brain, analytical thing. It comes from the realm of emotion, where inspiration and excitement reside.

This is the place where brands are born and incubated. Building a brand is about image and perception, meaning and purpose, and forging a connection and bond with your customers. Yes, there are rational factors involved as well. But it is the emotion-stirring idea that initially jolts us into paying attention and makes us consider the proposition at hand.

But what we are talking about here? What is a “big idea”?

Detractors like to jump on the phrase’s origins within the advertising agency industry when it meant almost exclusively an advertising ad or campaign idea. Famous big ideas include campaigns like Avis’ “We Try Harder” campaign,  Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” TV ads, the Energizer bunny, Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl commercial and “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” campaign and the long running “I Love New York” campaign. But it also includes relatively more recent campaigns like IBM’s “Solutions for a Small Planet” and the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign (a Canadian triumph).

I don’t really see why such advertising ideas would be proof that “big ideas” have become irrelevant. Quite the opposite. The impact each of these had on their company’s fortune was immeasurable. That’s a bad thing?

Of course, not every company in the world, consumer or business-to-business, will have the fortune or the budget to establish a grandiose idea of this type. Does that mean they should abandon the potential that compelling ideas hold for their marketing, indeed for their business?  Never!

My own definition of a big idea is more generous: it is an idea that makes your audience feel (and think) “That’s interesting!” and makes them want to know more. It is something that makes your brand or product or service stand out in someone’s mind. It’s all about context – what industry you’re in, what you are offering, who your audience is, what’s going on in your industry, what motivates buyers and so on.

It may be a campaign idea. But sometimes, it’s something more fundamental. Like making your locations a place people want to hang around in (Starbucks). Or changing the way we get music (iTunes). Or how massive amounts of 3D point cloud data can be wrangled pragmatically and affordably for the creation and management of virtual environments (Solv3D).

Among the key things that make a big idea big are focus and simplicity. It needs to be processed and understood quickly. It has to be single-minded, almost ruthlessly so. Ideally, it is unique.

Ideas come from insight. Insight comes from analysis and context. It also comes from experience. Insight feeds strategy. The narrower the strategy, the better. Ideas love an environment rich in information, insight and clear, single-minded objectives.

So you might think that trained as a direct marketer in a tribal skepticism of advertising creativity, I would have embraced the often-touted death of the big idea and promote the ascendancy of analytics and technology. But that never felt right to me. I always believed that ideas drive business and inspire pretty much everything else.

So I looked for a way to harmonize the two camps throughout my career. I was an unabashed disciple of direct marketing. I loved and still love its devotion to actionable and measurable response as well as to the acquisition of and use of data. (An approach also adopted by good digital marketing.) I tried to do direct mail for big brands (known as non-traditional direct marketers) that weaved these principles together with their brand positioning and messaging. And I had a lot of success doing that for companies like Thomas J. Lipton, Johnson & Johnson, Royal Trust, Canadian Airlines, Shell Canada and TELUS.

Big ideas are not dead at all. They remain the lifeblood of industry and most business. And they should be the objective of every communication we create to customers, prospects, employees, shareholders, and other stakeholders.

Does this mean that analytics and all of the wondrous possibilities today’s wide array of marketing technology make possible are unimportant? By no means. They help inspire ideas, distribute ideas, validate or invalidate ideas and improve them.

What they cannot do is replace ideas.