What’s the Big Idea?

What’s the Big Idea?

You’ve got the budget, charged your marketing team and are ready to execute. Your tactics and analytics are solid, and you’ve honed your audience down to wafer-thin segments. Great. You’ve bought your media placements, are hooked up to Hootsuite, and are ready to go social, too. By every objective measure “you got this.” 

Yet, when the campaign results come in there’s no back-slapping or high-fiving. The proverbial needle moves, though barely. Weeks later, everyone’s looking at you for the next silver bullet. 

What happened? Well, maybe it’s your message.

“Advertising needs big ideas.”

–David Ogilvy

So many marketing efforts fail to reach their full potential because they lack the sine qua non of any great campaign: the “big idea.” By that I mean a killer creative concept firmly grounded in marketing fundamentals. Instead, marketers often give short shrift to ideation and devote most of their attention to tactics. 

That’s easy to do, what with the democratization of marketing automation tools, and a preference for speed-to-market. It doesn’t help that, in our increasingly tech-centric society, creative literacy is becoming a scarcer commodity inside organizations. Besides, creative ideation has a woo-woo quality about it that can be hard to wrap one’s mind around.

Got a great idea? It could stand for decades.

Fair enough. But, as copywriting’s O.G., David Ogilvy, said so poetically, “Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.”

Big ideas result in big pay-offs.

The reward for prioritizing creative is immense. A well-executed campaign might get you likes, shares, leads and conversions. But a great idea will get you much, much more: brand loyalists, evangelists, along with greater customer lifetime value. Who knows? You might even win an award.

“A well-executed campaign might get you likes, shares, leads and conversions.  But a great idea will get you brand loyalists, evangelists, along with greater customer lifetime value.”

Make it relevant.

It almost goes without saying; but if your ad doesn’t offer a message that strongly relates to your target audience it will fall flat. 

A good rule of thumb is that the main thrust of your ad—enshrined as text and visuals—must convey a strong emotional or tangible benefit to the audience. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “What’s in it for me?” or “Why should I care?” If you don’t have a clear answer, rethink your ad.

Give them something to remember.

A good visual and headline will burrow themselves into your brain and live there forever. Think of these iconic entries into advertising’s hall of fame: Volkswagen’s Think Small or Nike’s Just Do It campaigns; KFC’s apologetic FCK; or the California Milk Processor Board’s Got Milk? series with its mustachioed celebs.

Make sure your ad is instantly arresting, both visually and verbally. Don’t make people read too far to get the meaning.

Change their way of thinking.

Clever ads abound. But few really incite the viewer to think differently about the brand, or the possibilities its products or services might confer. Developing a transformative ad takes time, though. It all starts with deep thinking about your brand and where it stands in the marketplace.

Are you giving your creative team the leeway and raw materials (market research and analytics) it needs to achieve a breakthrough? 

Stick to your brand.

The best advertising should promise something, whether a useful outcome or simply a sense of satisfaction. But many ads fly right past this and soar into the stratosphere. Will your five-speed blender really change lives? Not likely.

Keep it real by tying your concept to your brand pillars and unique selling propositions. Too, avoid straying from your company’s values. 

Give it legs.

You may have heard your creative team muttering, “Does it have legs?” Making a concept extensible frees the idea to be iterated with numerous creative variations. That will keep your ads in-market longer, promote virality, and maximize your ROI. 

Farmers Insurance’s We Know a Thing or Two® campaign is a good example of an umbrella idea that framed a series of stories showing that the company covered even the most offbeat claims.


Here in California we have Mike Diamond, the Smell-Good Plumber. I don’t know how well he can root out your sewer line. But it’s clear that Mike has wrenchlike grasp on his customers’ pain point—namely their aversion to stinky butt-crack plumbers.

As Avis proved in the sixties with their slogan, “We’re number two…we try harder,” setting yourself apart from the competition—even by some small measure—is a smart way to capture and gain market share.

“In general, I will always push us to spend more time on the idea, then let the tactics or channels express it.”

–Brandon Stuart, Executive Creative Director, Anderson

Make it channel-agonistic.

A truly great idea transcends channels and should be easily spread across them. Remember, most people are spurred into action not by a singular marketing impression, but rather a well-placed series.

Executive Creative Director Brandon Stuart of Anderson, a San Diego-based direct marketing agency, agrees. “I’m a big fan of being able to speak to an idea outside the channels or tactics through which it will be executed,” he says. “This isn’t always possible. But, in general, I will always push us to spend more time on the idea, then let the tactics or channels express it.”

Think share-abilty.

Virality is a force multiplier that basically amounts to free advertising. So what’s the difference between a merely good idea and a viral one? Among the five elements Jonah Berger mentions in his best-selling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, three come to mind:

For one, good viral ideas stir strong emotions, particularly awe, excitement, humor, even anger. They promise social currency (“How does sharing this make me look?”) and, third, they provide at least a modicum of practical value. 

KFC U.K.’s “extra-crispy” apology for running out of chicken hit people right in the gut,
and was shared like crazy.

Let right brains reign.

Along with the rest of the business world, marketers increasingly operate in in a super-rushed, left-brain, point-and-click milieu. Creative development, on the other hand, can be a slow, frustrating and messy proposition. But giving good ideas time and space to take shape is an investment well worth making.  

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