Tag Archives: big ideas

Why I am tired of the big idea debate

You’ve heard it before.  ‘The big idea is dead.’  ‘It’s all about lots of little ideas now.’

I just read yet another article about it and felt that it was time to say something again.

I am of the impression that we work from ‘brand platforms’ – sets of values and messages which they use to connect with their audiences, and that we can use these platforms as means of creating work based around ideas of all different sizes.  (Whatever ‘size’ means.  I think it means that a big idea can do lots of things, whereas a smaller one doesn’t go as far.)

However, the debate about the big idea still goes on.  I believe that this is because there is a wee backlash going on.  This is based on traditional planning vs the new planning.  People like me who have made the transition from making above the line campaigns in agencies where TV was the pinnacle, to digitally led agencies where we can do whatever is best for our clients because we have every channel at our disposal.

Because planning in digital seems so different, we feel the need to redefine what we do.  However, after doing this myself for a while, I now feel it is a complete waste of time.  What I do now is essentially the same as it has always been:

  • understand the audience
  • identify insights
  • agree what we want people to understand about the brand
  • agree what we want people to do with the brand
  • come up with good ideas about how we can make that happen

I’ve been criticised on the blog for this in the past.  And that criticism was fair, so I had a go at trying to explain why I wasn’t totally old school about it.

Big ideas are sexy.  They take ages to come up with.  Wouldn’t we all like to come up with one now and again?  On the other hand, lots of little ideas can be greater than the sum of its parts.  Horses for courses.  It’s up to us to work with our clients to do what is best for their brand.

I’d really like if the big idea debate could just die, rather than the big idea.

Rather than go on about it any more I’d suggest reading the following articles and making up your own mind.  (And then let me know what you think. Or don’t bother.  If you don’t reply I will assume you are getting on with having good ideas.)


The big idea is dead:

Think small

Why small matters

The big idea is dead

Rethinking the big idea

The elusive big idea

Simple ideas, well executed

Why it’s time to move away from the big idea


The big idea isn’t dead:

The big idea isn’t dead, it’s just smashed up into millions of pieces

Why size matters, big ideas aren’t dead, and ‘think small’ is dangerous advice

The big idea is alive and well

The big idea ain’t dead

Are big ideas dead?  Here’s one to watch out for


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Nothing is unthinkable

I came across Will Burns’ post Nothing is Unthinkable via Neil Perkin’s blog post of the month feature today. (If you aren’t familiar with this regular feature, it is definitely worth following, and participating in, and looking back at, if you like reading clever people saying clever stuff…)

I really like this article because it fits nicely with all the thinking I have been doing recently about ideas, where ideas come from, and how to get good ones. It focuses around how someone said ‘There are no new ideas’ and deflated everyone’s enthusiasm.

Apparently (according to Brainyquote, that bastion of useful less ful information) the quote is originally attributed to Audre Lorde, who I had never really heard of. Perhaps because I don’t like poetry. Anyway, she actually said

There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.

which is quite a bit more positive than the colleague in Burns’ article. And it is also quite true.

Burns says it’s important to remember that two old ideas can make a new idea – this ties in nicely with the Steven Johnson stuff about half hunches. This is also true.

Can two seemingly opposing ideas both be true? What I think is this. Whether they’re old ideas or new ideas, as long, as Audre Lorde says, they’re presented and packaged in a new way, or applied in a category they’ve not been applied before, and so on, they are ‘new enough’.

More importantly, who cares if the idea’s truly ‘new’? It’s much more important to maintain a positive and encouraging atmosphere so that people can get on with bumping their ideas up against other ideas to make better ideas.

I’m not necessarily saying planners/strategists have to be cheerleaders – it’s just as important to be realistic and critical – but the role of the strategist is to work out ways of keeping everyone engaged – not just the target audience – but creatives, design team, account management, your SEM team, and even the client.

This is best done with lots of interesting ways of approaching the problem, of making whatever brand/product/service you are working on seem essential to human existence, of making solving that problem a challenge people want to conquer.

It’s not life and death in marketing, it’s meant to be fun. We’re coming up with new ways to sell stuff, in hopefully creative ways.

That’s pretty much it, actually.

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Why it’s time to value brand strategy (again?)

A friend tweeted a link to this article about brand strategy today. The very same Nicki Sprinz with whom I had a chat about ‘big ideas’ over lunch on Saturday. I quite like them, she doesn’t, although we’re both ‘strategists’.

Anyway, this article is quite badly written – I am not sure what Adam Ferrier was doing that day, but he perhaps had other things on his mind. Planners often do… Anyway it’s a call to arms for planners to ‘innovate, create and play’, and amidst the mentalness of his writing style (maybe that’s why I liked the article so much) there are a several more very important points, which make reading the article worthwhile.

Here are some of the thoughts it provoked in me…

Business problems – what digital can do to solve business problems is huge. Yet often we’re tied up implementing something technical without thinking about it properly. If someone asks you to do a banner or a booking engine, ask them why they want it, find out what they really want their consumers to feel or believe when they see the banner or the booking engine, and take a step back and look at the big picture. Perhaps they want a banner because they’re not getting enough traffic to a particular place on their site, but maybe what they need isn’t a banner but more useful content…

You can’t really do content without having some form of ‘big idea’ or ‘territory’ or ‘manifesto’ sitting there in the background, supporting what you do and making your messaging more joined up. That’s all.

Redefining the discipline… He talks about the role of brand strategist (or planner) needing to be redefined. But I go back to my point in an earlier post. Planning is planning, is strategy, or whatever. You’re always answering the questions whatever it says in your email signature:

  • What are we trying to achieve? (From a business and a comms point of view)
  • Who are we targeting and why? And what insight are we operating around?
  • What do we want people to say/think/feel/do?
  • How are we going to get there?
  • And then returning to the question what are we trying to achieve to check, ‘is this right’? And then going back to the beginning if it’s not (being fairly agile about it, innit.)

I don’t think that we need to redefine the role at all. We don’t need to re-write the creative brief. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel either. His point that brand strategy needs to be taken more seriously in digital agencies is very important though. Brand strategy gives weight and meaning to everything we do. Strategists should be thicker on the ground than they are. Then we might get less implementation briefs and more thinking ones.

So, here are some questions.

  • What digital agencies do take brand strategy seriously and what can we learn from them?
  • What trad ad agencies with famously good planning departments are making the move into digital well?
  • Does it really matter? Shall we all just stop talking about it and get on with doing some work instead?


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