Why big is still beautiful

It is possible to think big but make small. We must transform our big ideas into action, Patricia McDonald argues.

McDonald: ‘As we move from metaphors to actions, we move towards ideas that demand interaction’
McDonald: ‘As we move from metaphors to actions, we move towards ideas that demand interaction’

In recent years, the "big idea" has often seemed to epitomise everything wrong and backward-looking about our industry.

As Joseph Jaffe, the author of Flip The Funnel, said: "I’m sick and tired of this notion that there is a singular BIG IDEA out there… Big ideas are equated to expensive ideas… hence the word big. Big ideas are, similarly, full of hot air, fluff, inflated with self-importance, exaggeration and hyperbole."

How much more compelling the lean manifesto or the agile movement have seemed – trim and nimble versus the bloated "big" idea. We have been encouraged to develop minimal viable products to test, optimise and iterate – all extraordinarily useful approaches when it comes to making things.

The danger is that we apply this approach to our thinking – that we start to think small. There is huge benefit to making small. The challenge is to think big while making small.

Thinking big remains critically important for a number of reasons.

We have big problems – and bigger opportunities. The web is not impacting our clients in small ways.

Margins are squeezed, cost of entry is plummeting, transparency is no longer a choice and entire industries are disappearing.

However, the web can also impact our clients in incredibly exciting ways. Our ambition should be to fundamentally transform our clients’ businesses in a way that simply wasn’t possible in an analogue world – to open up new distribution opportunities, to create new products and new paths to purchase. That calls for big, audacious thinking.

We need scale to grow. An oft-forgotten truth, as Martin Weigel of Wieden & Kennedy has pointed out lately, is that most brands in most categories grow by increasing penetration (scale), not frequency or fandom. In a fragmented media landscape, reach will be less and less easy to buy – so we need to create ideas with reach.

We like to share. Precision-targeting has been another strike against the blunt instrument that is the big idea. Why use a sledgehammer when you can use a scalpel to target individuals with surgical precision?

Again, while precision-marketing is an extraordinarily useful tool, we must remember the power of shared experiences. The dual-screen phenomenon (27,000 Tweets in 90 seconds during The X Factor) highlights our overwhelming desire to connect with others.

Yet, while big ideas remain critically important, the nature of the big idea has changed.

From big ideas to big actions

Once upon a time, our big ideas were fantasies. We imagined powerful roles for our brands in consumers’ lives – roles in which they connected communities or imbued their users with superhuman powers. We strove to "own" profound emotional territories such as generosity, joy and freedom, to convey product truth through ever-more visually arresting metaphors.

We dreamed of buying the world a Coke, teaching the world to sing, giving every child the right to play.

Today, if we can dream it, we can do it – the metaphor is no more.

As Google demonstrated so powerfully with its Project Re: Brief, if we want to buy the world a Coke, we can. If we want to teach the world to sing, or perhaps to read, we can do it through Skype and the awesome force of the "granny cloud". If we want to connect communities, or to give individuals the power to glide through cities, we can create social, crowdsourced traffic applications such as Waze.

Big ideas don’t have to be big executions

As I mentioned, it’s entirely possible to think big and make small. Big ideas no longer mean 90-second TV spots or beautiful, immersive websites. They may actually be quite small and simple in execution – and therein may lie the magic.

An example of this "think big, build small" approach is the "#SKYREC" initiative developed by AgênciaClick Isobar with the Brazilian TV operator SKY. The service syncs users’ SKY accounts with their Twitter feeds, enabling them to record a programme with a Tweet. A big, business-changing idea that, in the hands of the user, feels simple and delightful.

Big ideas are made of people

These effortless user experiences are particularly important in developing today’s big ideas because, in an ever-more connected world, big ideas are made of people. As we move from metaphors to actions, we move towards ideas that demand interaction and that live, as Mark Earls puts it, in "the spaces between individuals".

Big ideas will increasingly be built in these spaces – in the millions of tiny interactions that make an idea live and spread. They will demand that we think less about individuals and more about networks, that we treat our consumers less as fans and more as actors.

This is an inexact science at the moment. It will become more rigorous. We will see the rise of social-experience designers and network-prediction models with ingenious algorithms calibrating the epidemiology of an idea.

Long live the big idea

The big idea is alive, well and more important than ever – but today’s big ideas are different from yesterday’s. Today’s big ideas are not metaphors, but actions. They may not always feel big in execution – we may think big and make deceptively small. They will live in the interactions between people.

The agencies that succeed will be those that can develop big, audacious, business-changing ideas and use technology to move those ideas beyond metaphor and into reality, beyond ideas and into actions.

Patricia McDonald is the chief strategy officer at Isobar