The Big Idea: Concept or Canister?

[February 2, 2012] 

In the excitement and anxiety swirling through a new business pitch or the creation of a new campaign, attention is riveted on the top line, the Big Idea—and the hair-pulling process of selling it up the corporate food chain. Often, little thought is given to the details of how the campaign-to-be will roll out, and I suppose that’s inevitable. With today’s compressed time lines and skeletal staffing, Speed quickly becomes the only virtue. 

Besides, like characters in the traditional English children’s story, The Little Red Hen, many people with a stake in the process are much more interested in the final result than in the skilled and timely work required to make it happen. In the “I don’t sweat the small stuff” arrogance of the moment, they attempt to skip steps essential to the process.

For it’s right there, in the details, that most advertising campaigns fall flat, fail to communicate and set off a firestorm of “key learnings” anybody with patience and forethought could have predicted from the outset. That’s why the working out of the Big Idea must be pitched as an essential component of the concept. Because, contrary to popular belief, a creative concept is only as good as its ability to be worked out creatively—in a way that captures every nuance of the brand’s identity.

Filling the void.
A look under the hood of a failed campaign usually reveals a common problem. Often the conceptual framework has little impact on the internal workings of the realization. Instead of being the top-down re-imagining that a new creative campaign concept should be, the Big Idea is merely a series of empty canisters in which a brand can store its staple supply of boilerplate content. 

In the absence of an organic plan for mapping content to the campaign’s message strategy, many clients are happy to fill the void with a species of evergreen mush only a corporate legal team could love. And in the mistaken belief that Big Ideas are all that matter, a depressingly large number of agency operatives play along.

Body copy? I got a guy who does that for me.
Nevertheless, the belief that “anybody” can flesh out a Big Idea is false. In my experience, the cheeky headlines we chuckle over in presentation usually take far more talent and expertise to pay off than they do to come up with. That is, unless you think a cheeky headline followed by a bland restatement of the “reason to believe” is enough to motivate your audience. 

Done right, a fully realized ad campaign is an expression of the Big Idea at every turn. In the best case scenario, the Big Idea is itself a direct expression of brand attributes that are evident in the real world. Now, to hit that sweet spot, your product has to offer tangible, ownable value. It can’t skate by with the kind of parity benefits that make every laundry detergent virtually identical to every other laundry detergent. “Gets. Clothes. Clean.” Right, it’s a detergent.

In the aftermath, nothing adds up.
The impact of a mechanical ideation process is evident throughout the history of advertising. In 2012, we’re pleased to snicker at a Tide campaign from decades ago with the slogan “You can trust Tide to get clothes clean.”

Yet today, the Ford campaign “Drive One” makes the same leap into non-differentiation. In fact, squirm-inducing pre-feminist overtones aside, the Tide commercial at least presents a staged recreation of an actual interview. Ford, on the other hand, rolls out phony testimonials over swelling music and expects us to take them as gospel.

When the music dies down—and the cast presumably shuffles off to re-record “We Are the World“—all we’re left with is “Drive One. [Because. It’s. A. Car.]” 

Big Idea? I don’t think so—for here is a slogan that can only be paid off with scraps and remnants from the local cliché factory. Meanwhile, in digital space, Ford relegates its Big Idea to the status of an icon badge that visitors can use in the context of Ford Social, its social sharing space.

Coincidentally, the intro copy for this sector of Ford’s Web presence is a perfect example of what happens when creative development goes no further than the sketchiest top line thinking. “There’s something happening here at Ford. It’s new. And it’s called Ford Social,” reads the lead-in. I can’t think of a better argument in favor of sweating the small stuff right from the start.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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