It seems that size really does matter. Below-the-line agencies are getting very excited about big ideas. Every agency is determined to prove that we can have them too. This page of the supplement was reserved for a piece on big ideas. In a big book. After all, big ideas are big ideas.
Or are they?
It seems to me that it rather depends on how you define a big idea. The trouble with ideas is that we do not have an industry equivalent of the Beaufort or Richter scale to measure them. We do have our own glorious array of awards ceremonies at which, I suppose, we are searching for, and applauding, big ideas. But in practice, we often leave those ceremonies bemused: either commending the judges for their excellent judgment in awarding our work, or dotting the i's and crossing the t's of our conspiracy theories.
Not that long ago, it didn't really matter. As agencies, we probably wanted to have big ideas to prove that we were just as good at them as the advertising agencies, not because we needed them to help shape our clients businesses. Not so long ago, below-the-line activities were deployed against specific challenges and tasks, and we accepted that there were few places to hide when it came to results. But times are changing. Jim Stengel, the marketing chief of Procter & Gamble, has challenged the below-the-line world to raise its game as P&G believes that approximately 70 per cent of purchasing decisions are now made in and around the store.
Against that kind of environment, big ideas really do start to matter.
Which leaves us with our core problem: how do we decide whether we're in the presence of something big without the physical evidence of foam crests or buildings moving?
If you look at how the direct industry defines "big", you quickly realise that there is no definition. Some talk about the scale and complexity of execution - after all, getting a promotion to run on eight million packs of washing powder that will stay in people's kitchens for months at a time is big by anyone's standard, as is the logistical challenge of mailing 60 million households a year. But as often as not, the communications may have flown in the face of every value that its parent brand held dear.
Others determine scale by whether or not an idea runs in a variety of media. After all, we're still having to work hard to get an idea to have obvious consistency across 48-sheet posters, direct mail packs and web pages. But there is no pre-requisite for you to have a big or even a good idea in order to achieve synergy and integration. A bad idea can run in many media.
Others only get excited when it's about response and ROI. No-one can refute the notion that an idea that generates millions of pounds in hard cash is probably a big idea. And we can be equally proud when our campaigns have to be pulled because the factory couldn't produce sufficient product.
And yet another popular definition of a big idea is an idea that runs way beyond the original burst of activity. Against that criteria, McDonald's Happy Meals must be one of the biggest ideas to ever come out of the direct world.
So maybe we're getting towards a definition. Perhaps big ideas only exist when all these forces collide - when our ideas have great physical presence, when they seem to be everywhere you are, and when you can prove beyond all reasonable doubt that you made a real difference to the bottom line.
I suspect this is no different above the line. How-ever, the difference between our world and the above-the-line world is that we stop short of worrying about the difference our work has had on our clients' brands.
Direct marketing has spent too long talking itself into a corner about ROI and response rates. While I would be the first to eulogise about the importance of evaluating our activity, I think that it's probably time we got smarter about how we determine whether or not we have succeeded.
These metrics help us focus on the short term, but allow us to forget the bigger picture. It's like wallpapering over the cracks in the house while ignoring the fact that the foundations are subsiding.
So this is where I suspect we need to work harder. It's time for below-the-line agencies to get as excited about the foundations as they are about the interior design. Perhaps the reason we have avoided this has been the inherent difficulty in determining the impact below-the-line work has on a brand. Below-the-line activity rarely features in brand tracking studies. We have to find ways to understand the impact different bursts of direct activity have on brands, whether it's direct mail, promotional marketing, sampling or ambient activity. We have to start evaluating our work quantitatively and qualitatively against appropriate brand attributes - pre- and post- tracking on direct activity is too rare. We have to understand the impact in-store promotional activity has on the core brand.
And we must patiently pursue this understanding to help us spot the big idea from a wannabe. So, until we have some sort of sonic boom to let us know when the idea we have just had is a big idea, we all need to really look at the work we produce and if it doesn't have the client brand right at its heart, we should probably abandon it and start again.