Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: What exactly is "the big idea" and is there only ever one?

A: More often than not, there isn't an idea at all - not even a teeny-weeny one. It's interesting, don't you think, that while we're universally agreed that all advertising (brand communications, marcoms, take your choice) should embrace a Big Idea, 98 per cent of advertising carries on perfectly well without one. Perhaps that famous saying that Lord Leverhulme never uttered needs amending. Perhaps 98 per cent of advertising is wasted. Alternatively, perhaps the cult of the Big Idea needs a cautionary challenge. Personally, for starters, I'd encourage brands just to look for an idea, irrespective of magnitude. For most brands, idea size doesn't matter nearly as much as what in the old days we used to call relevance.

Champions of one kind of Big Idea argue that brands should appropriate some vast, universal emotion such as Love - and make it their own. Coca-Cola may have done that many years ago with "hilltop". But there are two intrinsic snags to this approach. Coca-Cola was already a big brand, more or less universally available and drunk enthusiastically by those very people most likely to see Love as the centre of their existence. There were many different skin tones on that hilltop, but no oldies.

But what about, say, Steradent? If Steradent's agency was being challenged to come up with the Big Idea, where should they look? And that's when the first of the two snags becomes quickly apparent. What vast, universal emotion could Steradent appropriate? The Nobility of Those Autumnal Years? The Contribution to World Peace of That Confident Smile? The first snag is pretension; and pretension can sink many an otherwise honest, workaday brand. By its very nature, this kind of Big Idea is always hovering perilously close to pretentiousness.

And the second snag, of course, is this. The number of vast, universal emotions available for appropriation by ambitious brands is strictly limited. It stands to reason: the vaster and more universal they are, the fewer they will be; the world simply isn't big enough to accommodate any more. If Coca-Cola's already got Love, and Dove's already got Real Beauty, and Steradent's already got World Peace, that leaves the other million or so brands with a very limited menu to choose from indeed. Don't let me discourage you from looking for this kind of Big Idea. The returns can be wonderful. Just remember that size isn't everything; for a medium-sized brand, a medium-sized idea may be infinitely more seemly and a great deal more profitable.

Another kind of Big Idea is big in a totally different way. It's not so much big in what it embraces as big in its infinite range of applications. The best ones are all about brand character: "Like it or not, this is who we are and what we stand for." You won't find many better examples than Virgin - though as far as I know, there's no glib strapline. With a comprehensive attitude like that, nobody has to worry about "adapting" anything to different media. It just comes naturally. Most brands promote themselves as if they had no competition; Virgin's entire corporate stance depends on its competitors' existence.

In daily life, of course, most ideas are presented to clients as Big Ideas. Sometimes they're even Really, Really Big Ideas. But out there in the real world, there are very few big ideas - and most of those become apparent only after eight years of successful exposure.

Q: In your opinion, which three advertising legends would have made the best "fantasy start-up"?

A: Put any three prospective advertising legends together in a start-up and the craft will self-destruct within seconds of leaving the launch-pad. Legends need their own space - which is why every great agency needs a Doyle, a Dane or a Mather. Sometimes they do nothing and sometimes they do just about everything other than attract the publicity. Those are advertising's most valuable people and nobody knows their names.

Q: My client has misinterpreted a campaign I presented to him last week - but loves it. Does it matter that he will be buying into something he sees, but we did not create, as such? What happens if it wins awards and we are compelled to bullshit about it in Campaign?

A: Sometimes I fear for my readers' minds. Here you are fretting about a campaign that your client loves and which you fear might actually win awards. Look at this work again dispassionately. I think you'll find it has grown on you.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4683.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.