Close-Up: So much to learn from the Battle of Big Thinking

Will Orr thinks the Campaign and APG event taught him about what's passe, the future and, pretty much, the meaning of life.

Staged by the Account Planning Group, the fourth Battle of Big Thinking took place last week. Billed as "a year's thinking in a day", this was a chance to hear 20 presentations of 15 minutes from practitioners from a range of disciplines.

The event is brilliant. If you didn't go this year, make sure you do next. While the quality of presentations was varied, the day as a whole was entertaining, thought-provoking and, in places, inspiring.

There was also a discernibly purposeful and optimistic tone. I was expecting to be told (again) that everything was new, difficult and scary. Instead I was told, in different but strangely consistent ways, that it was "time to get excited and make things". As Peter Sells, a digital producer from Bartle Bogle Hegarty, reminded us in quoting Keats, "in the long run we're all dead", so it doesn't really matter if we make the odd mistake.

Jim Carroll, the chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, once told me our business is "25 per cent about being right, and 75 per cent about convincing other people you're right". This event distils exactly that challenge - successful participants mix substance and style and the only real crime is to be boring (a crime that the majority avoided).

It is also a brilliant format because there has to be a winner, voted for by the audience. This year's was Guy Murphy, the global planning director at JWT.

Murphy was part of the first session on "Global Big Thinking", opening in vaguely Alan Partridge style - "there's a brand bomb ready to go off in our planning faces". He then brilliantly made the case for embracing the inherent optimism and enthusiasm being shown by brands and marketers in the emerging markets. These markets are showing "a childlike optimism in what marketing can achieve", with less research, more instinct and more entrepreneurship.

Murphy said it was time for an era of "brand play" where marketing was experimental, iterative and playful, even "a joyful experience", and brands could be "thrilling and exciting".

Here emerged a discernable theme for the day. While rigour and asking the fundamental questions will still matter, the future will be about doing things, changing them as you go, being iterative. As Mark Brown, a partner at Weapon7, put it, it's about "real-time thinking" in a world where, according to Will Harris, the UK marketing director at Nokia, "we won't know whether or not it's right until we've done it".

It struck me how inherently uncomfortable this is going to be for many agencies and practitioners. The control-freak tendencies of most good ad people are going to be severely tested in this new world, as are processes around centralised quality control. In this world of abundance and experimentation, it won't be about everything being "signed off" by everyone. We're going to have to get comfortable with fluidity and uncertainty, which is challenging when you're running or working in a big agency.

As David Hackworthy, the planning partner at The Red Brick Road, muttered from the next seat, "free your mind and your ass will follow".

Next up, it was Innovation, a section won by the very clever John Willshire, the head of innovation at PHD. He said Big Thinking - a concept based on top-down, command and control approaches - was old-fashioned. The future is about social thinking, social production and social media. Then followed a blizzard of clever stuff - consumers making and sharing products, those products talking to each other or even making themselves. Blimey.

Next up, Social Media, the very concept of which got a rough ride. Amelia Torode, the head of strategy and innovation at VCCP, questioned the word "media" as it suggests this stuff can be controlled and paid for in the same way traditional media can. Overall, there was a sense that social media isn't an end in itself or a cure-all, but a tool to be used as part of a brand's strategy. The experts want to get back to the underlying principles of brands and people. Social media, we were told, is ultimately about conversations, which brands can start or participate in. In the "hype-cycle" we're thankfully approaching the point where people stop going on about social media, and start using it really well.

Jeremy Ettinghaus from Penguin won this section, calling for an "Anti-Social Media Agency", one that would "make things, and then Tweet about them", that would "have conversations, but about selling things".

Then it was the Planners, won by Malcolm White, a founding partner of Krow, who invented the Battle of Big Thinking (and, to his great chagrin, gave the concept away for free). He tried to win the competition with a value proposition - 15 ideas in 15 minutes, a "tapas" of ideas (more Planning Partridge). My personal favourites were "a problem well-defined is half-solved", "if you don't understand the numbers it's their fault" and "increase the flow". The last one was an invitation to occasionally swap BlackBerrys for concentrated thinking, thus stopping us "living in a half-life of constant partial attention".

Then it was the embarrassingly named Open Mic session for the under-30s. The standard was extremely high and the very funny James Mitchell, a researcher at Carlson Marketing (I suggest you hire him), was the winner. He made a case for the crisis of "too much information" and a duty for brands to help simplify choice, create "a post-information age of focus". More importantly, he made some good gags, which works when you're listening to eight hours of speeches.

But when it came to gags, my vote goes to the winner of the Mobile section - Peter Sells. The title of his presentation was: "Is it just me or is mobile marketing a bit shit?" and it was brilliant. He managed to unintentionally spoof the other two speakers' "the cult of the future", while weaving stories about his girlfriends and his gambling habits into a simple, thoughtful thesis. Namely that "we're in the business of making people happy" and that the mobile is uniquely able to "remove barriers to better experiences". It struck me that, while the future is clearly about technology, it's the people who can get behind it and ask the simple, human questions like "how are we helping people?" that will prosper.

Another simple trend or truth emerged most clearly in the next Free (as in the economics of) section. It's time to create things of inherent value that people will pay for. The days of giving stuff with little value away for free and then paying for it with unwanted advertising are over. As Claus Moseholm, a partner at GoViral, said: "Forget free and start earning."

And so, with the audience close to exhaustion, the stage was set for the "purple-suited one", the winner of the Client section. Robin Wight, the Engine chairman, made an impassioned case for a fundamental change to communications research techniques, unchanged in more than 40 years, and "as bad today as (they've) always been". Based on a fallacy that people make decisions and decode things rationally, it's time for approaches that look at unconscious decision-making. To find out more, go to

And when you've done that, go to where you'll find the former Capital One marketer Justin Basini's deep thinking. He made the case for a fundamentally new approach to marketing, one that helps avert the onset of environmental, social and economic disaster.

So the meaning of life, then - get excited and make things; do less research; make things of real value; create a conversation with your consumer that makes them happier; think about people as well as technology; stop worrying about change and start enjoying it. Not bad for one day's listening, so, many thanks to everyone who took part (it must be terrifying) and to the APG.

- Will Orr is the former chief executive of WCRS.


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