Holding a Mirror to the Great Creative Idea

Across every advertising discipline, the quest for a Great Creative Idea (GCI) takes on epic proportions. The ultimate prize—to be known as the author of a GCI—is the dream of every gutsy intern, every plucky staffer and every macchiato-sipping, iPhone-wielding, 505-creasing creative director in the business.

Trouble is, no one has the slightest idea what a GCI is.

It is, apparently, something you stumble over in your Nike Air Maxes on your way to Starbucks. At least I assume so, in the absence of a universal definition—of either “great” or “creative” or “idea.”

As I see it, this lack of unanimity is endemic to a general decline in our fortunes. From the creative consultants of the ’60s, we’ve devolved to a hoary clan of 21st century ad-mechanics, a trend as despicable as it is reversible.

If you’re with me so far, let’s have a look at what GCI might mean to someone who still believes an ad agency can be more than a Jiffy-Lube station for obsolete response drivers.

Wrong end of the telescope.
Part of the problem of identifying a true GCI stems from the gnarled thicket of confusion about advertising structure. As I see it, a GCI operates only at the highest level of your imagination. It’s a thought process, lying in the deep background of whatever your audience eventually sees or hears.

As such, it doesn’t necessarily “sound cool” or “look amazing”—for the same reason you’d never think to wear your pancreas on your shirt sleeve. The function of a GCI is to build structure, not surface appeal. By the same token, a GCI isn’t a toy box of tactics. Your great idea for a video game that guides consumers to an appreciation of product benefits? That, amigo, is a tactic—and a tired one at that.

The same can be said for ideas with a more generic descriptor. Proposing, for example, an e-mail marketing campaign as a GCI is flat-out misrepresentation. A campaign of any kind can only be an execution of a GCI.

Chasing a mirage.
Equally wide of the mark are creative concepts that masquerade as GCIs by being alluringly ambiguous, or neurotically naughty. Let’s be clear: If your idea rises or falls on the use of a single gimmicky image or pun-infested headline, it’s not a GCI. As infatuated as you are with your comp, you’re chasing a mirage—a delicious illusion of greatness that’s just out of reach.

That’s when it’s time to recalibrate your vision. Realize that the only valid measure of your “totally sick idea for a viral video” is the thinking behind it. And until you can parse out a clear articulation of the message your proto-idea conveys, your GCI still needs a few more hours in the oven.

The over (and under) view.
None of this talk about background structure, however, implies that surface features are unimportant. Some of the most painful moments you’ll ever spend in a conference room are those watching a colleague roll out an idea that has no chance of practical realization. There’s no budget large enough or advancement in particle physics sophisticated enough to pull it off.

So while the main characteristic of a GCI is its ability to provide a creative framework for a series of communications, that framework must have its roots in the real world. And its most important real-world root is sustainability. A true GCI creates the means to roll out branded messaging over the long term. That’s because it grows directly out of a simple congruency: the intersection of a brand’s core value and consumer needs.

CGI process in perspective.
Now if coming up with a GCI sounds time-consuming, that’s only because today’s tight timelines, fast turn-arounds and found-efficiencies cut the creative process off at the knees.

Hence the familiar spectacle of a frantic call-to-brainstorm for a Monday morning presentation that arrives on your desk at 4:55 on Friday. It’s the surest sign that advertising has run aground on its ill-fated voyage from its homeland. What was once a culture of observation about modern society and the drivers of human motivation, has devolved into a dreary check list of “what works.”

So the next time it’s your turn to walk the presentation plank in the conference room ask yourself this: Is your Great Creative Idea a sustainable framework for delivering brand value—or a ghostly imitation of something you saw on Vimeo at 1:00 am last Tuesday?


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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