Close-Up: Viewpoint - Media may fragment. Big ideas certainly won't

BBH's executive creative director, John O'Keeffe, says that the formula for a brand's success won't change in the digital era.

I must say, I baulk at the term "traditional agency". I've never thought of Bartle Bogle Hegarty as a great upholder of tradition - quite the reverse. I think we're rather proud of our reputation for being a bit different: no creative pitches, the first micro-network, transparency, right up to making one of our clients a media owner with The Audi Channel.

So, the overexcited nonsense one hears from certain quarters about the demise of the traditional agency misses the point.

BBH, like pretty much everyone else, is a digital agency. We create mobile content, virals, games, a TV channel, as well as TV, print and radio. We're just a bit more interested in talking about the ideas than the platforms.

It has always seemed to me that digital, interactive, personalised, etc, are descriptions of media. What drives media thinking is, surprise, surprise, what is most likely to make a brand successful. And what makes a brand successful, irrespective of the medium, is its ability to engage with consumers. And what engages is a big idea.

The end. Except I promised 1,200 words. So ...

Winning digital briefs

What will become evident this year is that many agencies will have geared up for the fight to attract digital business. What clients will increasingly be looking for is something beyond mere technological competence. They will demand big creative solutions that work anywhere and everywhere, online and off. Which is why we have smart, digitally literate people in every department of the agency, as opposed to the separate digital department favoured by some.

But it wasn't technical ability that won the Lynx Digital pitch. It was the strategic and creative thinking we were able to combine with it.

This is not to decry the digital specialists, many of whom have very good strategic and creative skills. It's just to say that the playing field has levelled. Capability is no longer a point of difference. Quality is.

Of course, we had an unfair advantage in the pitch. We have years of experience in getting to the heart of a brand, devising a great strategy and, when it really works, turning that intelligence into magic. So, we'd created "the Lynx effect" ten years previously, and had a decade's worth of highly creative, handsomely rewarded and hugely effective work to show for it.

We simply explored the ways in which we could extend that idea online. And, do you know what? It worked really well: because that's what big ideas do. They work, and they work everywhere. None of which, you'd have thought, is remotely contentious. But therein lies quite a profound debate about the nature of brands in the future.

The big idea rules

We used to say "a big idea knows no boundaries" - though we were talking about international borders. In our case, it was used to explain how, for example, a great Levi's ad would work all over Europe.

It's equally true of media boundaries. However, there are those who say that the big idea is dead, that now it's all about having lots of little ideas, as unrelated as they are unrelenting, and that that is the way to drive brand success in an era of ever more fragmented media.

I think that way lies a short-term, "Brand Idol" world, and I don't like the look of it. What do I mean by Brand Idol? (More to the point, can I sell it to Endemol?) What I mean is, short-term stunts or "one-offs", for want of a better expression, that lead to possibly spectacular, but, at best, short-term bursts of brand fame. Brands are big investments for companies. I think they deserve longer-term strategic thinking than that.

Big ideas endure. They give brands points of difference. They fix them in the minds of the consumer. Digital doesn't change that.

A quick example, staying with Lynx for a moment. Last year we launched Lynx "click". It was 2006's new variant. We did a commercial with Ben Affleck, we gave away thousands of clickers to young men, and we did a whole lot more besides. But now it's over - gone, never to return.

Happily, it was simply the latest expression of "the Lynx effect", so the brand and all its value(s) didn't die when the clickers stopped clicking. I don't envy those who buy the logic of sporadic, ad hoc, unconnected stuff. I doubt if Mentos or Diet Coke significantly increased market share because someone posted an exploding bottle on YouTube. Perhaps they were that week's Brand Idols.

The answer to media fragmentation

The questions clients should ask their agencies, and we should all ask ourselves if we don't want brands to go the way of Hear'Say and Gareth Gates, are: Will this idea work, whatever media challenge it faces? Will it endure? In short, is it big enough?

Of course, the content that comes from those big ideas will be seen and played with and shared in all sorts of ways. And, if we get it right, each interaction will further embed the fixed identity of the brand into the consciousness of the consumer. It may be a game, a music track, a competition. It may be a bloody big TV ad. It'll probably be all of the above. Just as long as it drives the core brand identity. "Just do it", "the power of dreams", "colour like no other". That's what you've got to get to first. It may take longer than you'd like in our ever-accelerating culture. But good things come to those who wait.

These are all big brand thoughts, as at home on your PSP as on your mobile or your PC or, dare I say it - yes I do - your telly. I know, I know, I've got Sky+, too, and, yes, you can whiz through the ads. But you don't have to. If it's great, people will watch it. See Sony Bravia for details. We should all, client and agency, be very pleased about that. Life just got much simpler.

If I wasn't obliged to write 1,200 words, I might just say: Media may fragment. Big ideas won't.

A final point about media neutrality. Even though there are those who say that the consumer is now ruler supreme - so how we might want to dictate where and when they come across the brands we're responsible for is entirely out of our hands - I still think there's room for us to find relevant connections between consumers and brands. It's why we've introduced engagement planning, putting understanding of how people navigate channels right at the heart of the creative process. I think it makes us a little less media neutral, and a little more media active, and a very good thing, too.

That's pretty much how we see the future. Loads of new media. Everyone will have the ability to navigate them. Some will do it better than others.

But, just stop and think. Which brands spring to mind? Honda, Sony, Guinness, Nike? It seems no-one has yet come up with a better way to build a brand than a simple, big idea. Well ... it's traditional.