Tag Archives: where do good ideas come from

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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10 things creatives complain about (and how to turn them into better briefings)

While I was preparing my Social Media Week presentation last month I wanted to demonstrate the importance of creativity and creative strategy in social media.  In order to do this I had to question whether we needed a new briefing method for social media in particular.

So I did a wee survey of a load of creatives I know, and they pretty much all came up with the same complaints about briefs and briefings.  I found that the complaints encompassed all channels, and that ideas are ideas and the process is pretty much the same.

Here are those complaints, and some thoughts on how we can harness them to make better briefs and run better briefings, whatever you’re briefing for.

1. Why are we doing this?

A lot of the creatives I spoke to said they weren’t told what the point, the objective, of the exercise was, or where it fit into the bigger strategic picture.  In digital we are often asked to implement Above The Line work online, and this hardly ever works out well if we have to lift it straight across.  Online display advertising has to do something, in fact ‘display’ is a bit of a misnomer. It needs its own strategic thinking and infrastructure.

It has to lead to something; it has to engage, encourage/irresistibly invite participation.  Setting up a Facebook page or building an app works on the same principle.  This piecemeal/bandwagonesque approach to digital and social media still happens in some places, so I am told.  We have to think about what the brief is for, what success looks like.  Talk about the objective before you talk about the channel.  Is what we have been asked to do the right thing?  Involve your creatives in this discussion (with the client if possible,) and don’t be afraid to challenge your client.

2. What does the client expect?

Assuming that you’re happy with your client’s brief, you still need to communicate to your creative/designer what is in your client’s head.  This might be that they really liked Brand X’s campaign, and want something like that, or it might be that they hated it and want to make sure they get the antithesis of that.

It could be more subtle than this, of course.  It could be based on what ROI they are expecting, what conversion rate, in which case you really have to test, test and test your usability and make sure it’s going to tick all the right boxes…  Communicating this to your designer will save you headaches later on, anyway.  It’s not the same as doing what your client thinks they want (see point 1.)

3. What does the user get from this?

In the olden days the planner was the voice of the consumer in the agency.  They should still perform this role and look at a client’s brief – and concepts developed from them – with the same hat on.  They should help designers/creatives see things from the consumer’s point of view when design is taking place (as well as the client/account manager.)  Helps to reinforce point 1 as well.

4. You gave me too much/too little/confusing/irrelevant information

Creatives need information, but they need it sorted out for them.  They need to know what the 1, 2, 3, most important things are, whether that’s about the market, the consumer, the product, whatever.  They don’t need pages and pages of stuff.  The more time you spend thinking about what your designer needs to do his or her thing without being confused, the better.  Then you get the best out of their time.

5. This brief is just a copy of the client brief

I hate this.  It makes me swear and stamp my feet when I hear about it.  Sometimes a wee client brief for a banner or something like that comes in and it’s not thought of as important enough for its own thinking, so the brief is just copied and pasted across.

The thing is, a well executed, witty and effective little banner is a Thing of Great Beauty and deserves love and attention just like anything else.  Give it the thinking time it deserves.  I guarantee you will get better results.

The little things are the big things, as the wise man said.

6. I’ve been given too many directions

Creatives get really upset if everyone tries to get involved in their project.  Protect them from committees and their opinions.  Decide at the beginning who can give your designer feedback, and agree amongst everyone what direction you’re going to take things in. Then no one’s feelings are going to get hurt and you’ll get better work.

7. This isn’t the right briefing team

The schedule is a tyrant and sometimes the person who knows the brand best just isn’t free to do all the work on it.  However, they should have time to sit in on the briefing and share their knowledge and thoughts on the brief.  This helps a lot.  They might know wee foibles in the brand guidelines or something about what the client likes/doesn’t like.  Remember to involve them!

8. Are these the right details?

Apparently some people don’t get told what format the work is to be in, PSD or Flash number X or whatever.  It’s not my field of expertise but it’s a big deal to designers and can save a whole load of hassle.

9. What requirements will restrict me?

Brand guidelines, templates, links to landing pages, use of language or whatever.  They can all restrict what a designer can do, where the idea can come from.

10. Where is my creative freedom?

Finally, this question comes up.  It’s funny that it comes last.  In many ways it is the most important question.  Issues 1-9 above often seem to restrict that freedom quite a lot, but with a good creative strategy – a good base of ideas – to work from, there should still be a lot of creative freedom.

I hope this helps.  Some of it seems quite obvious but I know it can get a bit pushed to one side when people are under pressure.  I’ve turned them into a quick checklist for the briefings I am involved in.  It’s important to remember just how much a tiny bit of thinking time can save you in the long run.

If you liked this my whole presentation is available to see on video here or you can have a look at the slides here:

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At least 10 good reasons to check out Social Media Week

Many of you will know about Social Media Week already, but for those of you who don’t, it is a week-long conference, held in a number of different cities world-wide, covering many aspects of social media, with speakers from all around the world and from all kinds of industries.

One of the best things about it is that all the events in the programme are free, so you can pop in and out to the things that interest you, rather than having to commit to a whole day.  You do have to register for talks, though, so get in there and register early to avoid disappointment.

This year we are lucky for it to be held in Glasgow, and I have just spent a wee bit of time booking in to some of the events.  There are a whole lot to choose from – although some are beginning to ‘sell out’.

When I say ‘at least 10 reasons’, here are more than 10 events I thought were worth popping into:

Integration of Channels

This is a subject close to my heart – and I am always interested in knowing what other people think about this, and what their approach is.  Particularly when I work with them!

Fashion Blogging 101

This will be very glam, I am hoping.

Psychology of Social Media

This should be good, with three speakers coming from completely different angles.

Social Storytelling

Lovely thing, storytelling.  I’ve mentioned it before (although I can’t find the post, maybe I dreamt it).

Managing your digital personality

Something lots of people/brands I am not going to mention could do with some advice on!

Blogging for success

Exciting title, hopefully full of great tips.

How and why you should build an effective online community

Think this will be a good one, interesting looking speakers.

Sport and social media

There is so much scope for brands who sponsor sports (or sponsor anything, in fact) within social media.  I’m going to this and expect to take lots of notes!

Dirty Pretty Digital Things

This sounds fun, although it clashes with the event below…

What’s next in blogging

This sounds great – a keynote from a Revolution/Marketing journo about what’s coming up.  Plus it’s in the lovely Blythswood.

Snake Oil Salesman…

This looks like a good talk – how to know how to hire the right agency for the job.

Social Buzz Awards

This promisess trends and insights.  Very promising.

Where do good ideas come from?

Your chance to see me blush and quake in my Converse.  Probably.

There’s loads more in there.  Have a dig around, see what you think.  Should be fun!

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My top 5 albums to listen to whilst travelling

I am on a train, reading WG Sebald. His writing never ceases to amaze me:

‘There is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in travelling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we really have been abroad.’

Anyway, I recently heard (at a presentation given by @LadyLele) about theta waves. (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theta_rhythm) These aren’t well understood but they are apparently brainwaves you get when you’re not sleeping but zoning out. They’re associated with learning and memory. Daydreaming. They might even help you get good ideas.

I think I get these when I’m in the shower or on a long walk or bike ride, but also on a long train journey. I zone in and out, not really conscious of what I am thinking about, but thinking all the time.

This state is often enhanced by what I am listening to on my iPod at the time, so here are my top 5 theta-wave-enhancing travelling albums.

1. The Orb: U.F. Orb

I first took this album on a long journey when I visited friends in Wales around the time of my 16th birthday. I was delighted to discover that they didn’t do much there except listen to dub, smoke weed and go to parties, and I associate this album with being at parties in barns and squats, sleeping in cars, and being present at the world record attempt for rolling the longest joint of all time.

2. The Happy Mondays: Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches

School trip to the Vendee in 1990 = nearly a whole day in a coach full of 14 year olds singing The Bangles’ ‘Eternal Flame’ and being bus-sick. I had a copy of this on one side of a C90 and The Stone Roses on the other, ran my batteries down rewinding the cassette over and over again. This side of the tape wore out I loved it so much. It was excellent for plotting my revenge on mediocre pop music. (Which was never carried out.)

3. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavillion

I got this album in the winter of 2009-10 and played it a lot, when I was doing the daily commute from Glasgow to Edinburgh. It was cold and dark all the time and snowy a lot of it, and I was always tired and a bit depressed. This album gave me optimism, made me think of summer. Now it reminds me of winter.

4. Bonnie Prince Billie: The Letting Go

I had a client in Inverness and the regular train journey was beautiful and romantic. And long. Made me wistful. And bored. And a bit train sick.

5. Radiohead: OK Computer

This album was released the summer before I re-started university. Like everyone else, I went crazy for this album and played it non-stop. If you listen to it end to end, it’s like reading a long article about the state of the world except it’s up to you to decide what the key points are.

So, that’s my list. What are your favourite meditative travelling tunes? Or do you prefer to move in silence?

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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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The strategist-creative team – a source of better ideas?

I’ve been hunting around recently trying to find some decent articles about ‘the new creative team’, i.e. not the traditional pairing of art director and copywriter, but one that is more suitable for the integrated, digital world we live in.

I first came across the idea about 4 years ago.  A pal of mine had moved as a solo creative to Work Club, which she said was super exciting after working for years in a creative team.  She said the best thing wasn’t just the energy the place had but the fact that she was frequently paired with a strategist (in the same way as she would have been paired with her former copywriting partner) but also working very closely with UX designers, developers, and other members of the wider team.  These guys understood the technology as well as the creative idea.

The result was a constantly changing team who brought something new to the table every time they met – even if it was just a fresh face and a bit of enthusiasm.

At the time this seemed really outlandish (but thrilling).  I thought that perhaps this would take the traditional ‘creative’ off their pedestals and into a situation where they were properly useful, in helping everyone come up with better ideas, and in helping everyone feel like part of the idea.  It was a much more caring, sharing way for things to be.  The epitome of ‘we don’t work in silos’, which is what everyone says but is often not practiced.

Since I started working in digital 4 years ago this has become a far more common way of working and it is something we do at Equator.  I very much enjoy working in a pair with a designer/creative, and also with a wider team, and I believe that this really does help to get the balance right, avoid too many meetings, keep the focus when it’s needed, but also ensure that idea generation and collaboration on ideas is something everyone can take part in (and pride in.)

There are a few articles that I came across in this search which reflect the experience my friend and I have both had, from ‘opposite sides’, i.e. she as a creative and me as a strategist:

Edward Boches The new creative team and getting it to work

This really reflects my friend’s experience and offers some great tips for making it work in your agency.

Olivier Altmann and Richard Pinder The new creative team (this opens as a pdf)

This is a similar article to the above but it’s also about new ways of working more generally.

Rory Sutherland Who make better planners?

The result of one of these black/white debates which essentially came up with the result that we need a good balance of planning/strategy and creative.  And that they should work more closely together.

Richard Huntington Is Planning in crisis?

Again, a simplistic question but some interesting points made about how we have to move with the times.

Edited to add: David J Carr So what is planning now we are all digital?

A really nice article about changing roles of brands means changing roles for planners.  (Better roles, actually.)

If you know of any other articles that fit, I’d be really interested in reading them.

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Where do good ideas come from? Slides from last night’s She Says event

Last night was the first ever She Says event in Scotland.  Very exciting to be part of such an auspicious occasion, and in the lovely venue offered by the Leith barge, the Mary of Guise.  We even got to taste their new beverage, Maid In Leith.

The selection of speakers was terrific because we were from quite different skillsets and backgrounds – Carolyn Peacock of BigMouthMedia is an Account Director, specialising in Paid Search, Eilidh McDonald is an illustrator and designer and I’m planning/strategy so although we were all speaking around similar themes our approaches were all quite different.

After the talks there was a lively discussion (involving more beer and wine) about ideas and our experiences.  We also vowed to have another She Says event soon, hopefully in Glasgow.

Anyway, here are my slides and an outline of what I was talking about.

Title slide:

Where do good ideas come from is a good question.  To begin to answer it I did what many people do and googled it, and came across various videos of Steven Johnson talking about his book of the same name.  I jotted down some of my thoughts about what he says…

  1. Good ideas need time.  This is obviously essential.  Thinking time, time to muck about, time to talk, even procrastinate.  It doesn’t really matter what you do with the time, as you are probably processing your thoughts somehow.
  2. Space is also important.  You can’t come up with good ideas if you’re tied to your desk.  Get away, look at things differently.
  3. Johnson doesn’t mention creative people – but I think that the people involved are very important.  They’ve got to be totally prepared to say silly things or make a fool of themselves.  It helps if they’re into new stuff, always trying the latest gadget, going to see films and theatre and new restaurants and so on.  New experiences are important to keep you thinking forwards.
  4. Networks also v important.  TED and twitter are my favourites.  Creative people (except maybe authors) don’t work well for long periods alone.  Virtual networks are fine but you can’t beat being in the same room together speaking like humans.
  5. Johnson thinks environments are important.  Here are some nice creative environments.  Mother has a big concrete table.  St Luke’s was very unusual, we had brand rooms and ball pools and a terrific canteen.  We hotdesked and it worked really well.
  6. This is where I work now – Equator.  The environment is lovely – got a great buzz, we’re all on the same floor, we have glass meeting rooms.  It doesn’t feel ‘closed’.  However, I don’t think environment is that important.  You could just as easily be at the pub.
  7. Or in the shower.  or riding your bike or swimming lengths of your local pool.  Sometimes you need to do something boring and repetitive to think deeply.
  8. But hang on.  Asking where good ideas come from is a bit like asking for the answer without knowing what the question is.
  9. if you’re going to ask where good ideas come from, you need to ask other questions, like what is a good idea, how do you create good ideas, and then how do you know you’ve got a good idea, and is it a good idea if you don’t execute it/well?
  10. Here are some good ideas that I like.  What have they got in common?  First is piano stairs.
  11. A hunter shoots a bear.
  12. Skittles facebook updates
  13. Subservient chicken
  14. Skateistan
  15. Big bean bag
  16. Charity snooze
  17. Playmobil Apple Store
  18. Nike +
  19. Google
  20. HTC
  21. All these ideas, platforms, tactics and campaigns have insight in common.  Many will also have been developed using a strategic process like this.  What’s the point of strategy?
  22. Yogi Bear – if you don’t know where you are going how will you know when you get there?
  23. Little Prince – a goal without a plan is just a wish
  24. So in this strategic process your ideas come from knowing your market, client, brand, and audience inside out, and then playing around with what you know until you find some routes to develop some insights.
  25. Then there’s the steps you take to define your idea further and make it ‘good’.  What’s crucial here is to understand what an insight is, because even though it is fairly old-fashioned, I wholeheartedly believe that it is this that takes you where you want to be.  I am indebted to Simon Law, Phil Teer, Charlie Robertson and a whole lot of other planners for my understanding of this process.
  26. definition
  27. definition
  28. definition
  29. what it’s all about
  30. I like to adapt this, given that we’re not just selling stuff anymore
  31. This is a great way to remember the difference between research and doing something with it.
  32. Revelation is a good wayof thinking about it.  Also the cause and effect-ness of it.
  33. testing it
  34. testing it
  35. testing it
  36. knowing if it’s more than an observation – does it answer ‘why’?
  37. then if it’s a great insight you can create your platform/write your creative brief/create your hero executions
  38. check you have the ecosystem in place to support it
  39. engagement strategy is more than a +1 or a ‘like’
  40. get all that right and you have awesomeness!
  41. remember this is digital – for a quick win you can always stick cats in it (or sex)
  42. thanks for listening



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