Close-Up: Live issue - Science and stories as adland returns to school

Sue Unerman, the MediaCom chief strategy officer, joined in the cerebral celebrations at last week's Battle of Big Thinking.

This year's third annual APG Battle of Big Thinking was packed full of content that would feed any creative brain. Jeremy Bullmore last week quoted James Webb Young in his Campaign column: "Every really good creative person in advertising I have known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields." 6 November was a tremendous festival of this kind of thinking.

It was my first time at the Battle and I've got to express my admiration at the bravery of the men and women on stage who put themselves out there for our votes. The chair on the day, Malcolm White, the founder of Krow, promised us that we would find the day extremely good value, and he wasn't wrong. Twenty-one 15-minute presentations of big ideas is indeed a whole season's worth of conferences. He also warned us that 15 minutes could feel like a very long time if the presenters didn't get their idea across, or simply talked about themselves. In a very small minority of cases, that was indeed also true.

There was a surprising amount of science. More than one presenter explained quantum physics to us, there were two theories of evolution and a bit of bio-chemistry. At one point, I did slightly feel like I was back at school with a double science lesson after break.

It was proof of the rule that if you're presenting, you should always attend all the sessions before yours. Where we didn't have science, there was storytelling. So there was something for everyone on the day.

Four topics were mentioned by lots of the speakers: recession, Obama, The X Factor and open-source thinking. The first three must be pub and coffee shop conversations all over the UK at the moment. Open-source debate may just be our industry.

The eventual winner was Graham Fink, the executive creative director at M&C Saatchi, who received the best trophy I have ever seen in a glorious wrestling belt. He shamelessly flattered the audience by inviting us to join his Big Thinking Club and charmingly referenced the Obama campaign by asking us to "vote for change or crush the idea".

The fact that he, rock-star-like, stripped off his jacket to reveal the most beautifully tailored shirt on the stage all day was mentioned by several of the audience as a point in his favour too.

Big Research Thinking followed. Les Binet, the DDB Matrix European director, won his section with some unarguable work from the IPA Datamine. I loved Tim Britton of YouGov's thought about the benefits of getting to know the people you research. I know from personal experience - MediaCom's Real World Street research project - that he's right. You get better knowledge from people you know than from supposed research virgins. Although, did Mandy Pooler have to show a picture of Martin Sorrell? I've yet to hear if it's compulsory for senior WPP management, but I'm sure the memo will reach me at some point.

Then came the marketing debate and Ian Armstrong, the manager of customer communications at Honda, told me quite a lot I didn't know about the importance of congruence and how the human brain rewards us with doses of dopamine (which seems to be a bit like honey) for communications that meet expectations. This was close to an overall theory of advertising and very interesting for it.

David Hackworthy, the strategic planner at The Red Brick Road, won the battle of the planners with a bit more science - in this case, biology - and the importance of sex and death. David Bain, the planning partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay, was very interesting too - he talked of the need for "humble thinking and brand humility" but was never going to win with an argument to this audience about the need for us to get over ourselves. (Fink told us we were huge, Bain asked us to recognise our insignificance - not a difficult call to see who'd win out there.)

Communication Thinking was next with no media representatives from the top ten agencies. Were they too busy investing clients' money or were they not asked? Jason Gonsalves, the head of engagement planning at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, won this section with another stroll around quantum physics; the "quantumisation of identity and duality of individuals and communities". That's the Christmas media plan sorted, then.

The final session of the day contained the funniest presentation and best use of PowerPoint I think I've ever seen. Nigel Newton, the founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury, urged us to embrace instinct and not analysis with a selection of slides that for some time seemed to have absolutely no connection with his theme. You had to be there. Competing with this, David Hepworth, the founder of Development Hell, played us the Rolling Stones and told us "don't think big, think small and then do something". Simon Waldman, the chairman of the Association of Online Publishers, gave a really great rallying call for the Great British Media Brand, which, come to think of it, relates to Fink again - surely a Great British Media Brand in his own right.

THE BIG THINKING CLUB

- Graham Fink executive creative director, M&C Saatchi, on his battle-winning idea

Sixteen years ago, Bilbao was in the grip of economic recession. A place of declining industry, dirty rivers and sewage problems.

Then a meeting took place between two seemingly opposite minds: the Basque government and the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation. An amazing idea emerged ... to build the most incredible art gallery the world has seen.

Frank Gehry was appointed and, in 1997, the Guggenheim was opened to rave reviews. The rest is history.

One million people a year flocked into Bilbao, with 90 per cent from outside Spain. Eighty-two per cent came especially to see the Gugg', resulting in EUR150 million a year being pumped into the local economy. Shops, hotels, a river esplanade and a new transport system emerged. Bilbao was transformed ...

By two opposite minds coming together, a tiny but powerful piece of creativity was planted into the centre of this big, stinking, declining brand and it spread like a virus.

Now let's look at the current recession. It has similar brand values as the old Bilbao. Horrible place, negative growth, rotten, stinking, no money coming in. Is it possible to plant a tiny beautiful creative virus to attack it?

They say it takes four people to start a revolution. Well, last week, I had 250 in the audience at The Battle of Big Thinking. Two hundred and fifty fellow big thinkers.

Imagine if I matched each one with their opposite. Someone from outside their industry/profession, eg. a speedboat designer with an advertising creative; an air-traffic controller with a marketing strategist. Just think what great new ideas might emerge.

Two opposite minds, like throwing two pebbles in a river, will eventually meet when the ripples collide. This is the place of magic. So I proposed creating The Big Thinking Club.

I'm asking participants to give up just one hour of their time to meet their opposite brain. On every seat, I left an envelope where attendees found a photo and biog of someone personally selected by me. I encouraged them to call that person and arrange a meeting and explore each other's minds.

The results/ideas will be posted onto the Big Thinking Club website. Everyone can see other people's ideas and mark their favourites. A small team will monitor the site for the most popular ideas and help the team develop them if need be. Each member can nominate someone else to join up and meet another opposite, so that the creative virus grows.

Finally, The Big Thinking Book will be published annually.

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