So the big idea is dead. Just like TV advertising and all those other old-school ways in which people have been building brands for the past few decades. It’s all about lots of small ideas now. The feast of a big idea, replaced by the tapas of the small. And I like tapas – who doesn’t? Especially those little Padrón peppers. But I love a roast chicken dinner too. Is it possible that there’s still plenty of room for both of them?
Tracy De Groose has postulated that the big idea is on its deathbed. She’s a clever lady who is always worth listening to. She says the world has changed and now we should all be thinking of smaller ideas, united by an organising thought or brand purpose. It’s a logic that’s hard to argue with, except that an organising thought or brand purpose is what most of us mean by a big idea, and we have all been executing these big ideas through smaller ideas for ages and calling it integrated marketing. So I’m confused: what’s the big idea around the death of the big idea?
This talk is dangerous. It’s starting to look as though our industry is slaughtering its sacred cows, constantly, in the battle for a moment’s PR. Everywhere I turn, people are talking about burning and breaking, being braver and more disruptive. Of course we have to move with the times, adapt to the myriad new ways that people consume media and interact. But let’s calm down, folks. Adapting doesn’t mean jettisoning the core building blocks of great brands – a clear positioning, made powerful and distinctive by a big idea and executed through arresting and engaging marketing that evidences that big idea and keeps it fresh.
When we start chucking out our core beliefs, we compromise our industry. Instead of insisting this is year zero and we all know nothing, why can’t we say how great what we do is – and be excited that we can build our big ideas in richer, more efficient and more rewarding ways for audiences than ever before? Let’s stop burning and start rejoicing in the ongoing power of a good big idea.
Let’s take HSBC. It had a fabulous big idea: the power of global experience delivered to every local customer. The world’s local bank. It was brilliant. The comms were brilliant. The airports looked brilliant. Then it stopped. It didn’t need a big idea any more, so now it has…? I have no idea what HSBC is or thinks now. It has no obvious big idea, so I am left with no idea.
I could get more topical, as it’s not just brands that need big ideas. For example, the "Remain" and "Brexit" stories – what’s the big idea here? What are they giving us to hook on to and help us make up our minds? Nothing. I read lots of individual politicians espousing lots of small ideas and I have no clue what is the narrative of either. The one who gets a big idea – fast – will prevail, in my view.
We all enjoyed The People V OJ Simpson, yes? It was fantastic TV (despite TV being dead) and it demonstrated a clear difference between a big idea and lots of small ones. The prosecutors had the DNA, the gloves, the timings, the past misdemeanours, the shoes – the lot. But each small idea they brought to the jury didn’t add up to a big idea at all. The defence had nothing. The chance of Simpson not being the killer was 1:9.8 billion (more than the number of people who live on this planet). But they had the narrative, they had the big idea: that the LAPD racially targeted a black man because a white woman was slain. For nine months, they stuck to their big idea. And they won. They knew their audience (a mostly black jury) and they knew their message, which they repeated through lots of smaller messages at each stage of the case. Marketing at its very best.
And, of course, the big idea is still evident in the sporting arena too. Take Manchester United. They had a big idea for 26 years – press and impose. And it worked rather well. Now they seem to have a new small idea every game and, let’s be honest, even I can see that they have badly lost their mojo.
So, back at CHI Towers, we are going to carry on finding big ideas. Our big ideas process will continue to be the cornerstone of the way we think and guide our clients and, with our & Partnership colleagues, we will continue to help ensure those big ideas are brought to life across all channels in the most relevant and engaging way. That moment, when the team you are part of cracks a truly big idea for a brand, remains one of the most exciting, empowering and meaningful parts of our job, and I want as many of those in my career as I can get.
Sarah Golding is a chief executive of CHI & Partners