Maybe It Is Time For Marketing To Move Away From "The Big Idea"

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Everything we do in Marketing, Advertising and Communications comes out of "The Big Idea." It’s what drives the marketing strategy, it’s what drives the brand and agency to get excited about the campaign, and it’s what drives consumers to put their hands in their pockets and hand over their hard-earned dollars.

Maybe it is time for Marketing to move away from "The Big Idea."

Whether we like it or not, times have changed. Prior to the Internet and the social media platforms it has given us, we never could really hear what consumers wanted, we never could listen in on the types of conversations they had between them, and we never could really understand what made them buy, click and share. In a world of Twitter, Facebook status updates, Google Profiles and FriendFeed, we know more than we ever thought we would know and – the truth is – we’re barely scratching the surface of what we can do with all this information, data and insight.

On top of that, we are getting this information in real-time (or close to it).

To couple that concept with advertising, in the Mad Men days of wooing the big clients and winning them over with one pitch and one big idea, it was – essentially – a strategy where a brand was putting all of its eggs into one basket (all of them from the same chicken). That big idea had better work, or heads would roll. We all know the professional lifespan of the Chief Marketing Officer (it’s anywhere between 1-2 years) and there are very few brands that still maintain a single agency of record for a significant amount of time.

In fact, ad agencies and brands are as fragmented as the media outlets they serve.

So, in a world of media fragmentation, multiple media outlets, new media platforms and brands harnessing multiple agencies to meet their needs, perhaps the time has come to ditch the concept of "the big idea" and move more towards a world of "many ideas." That’s not to say that the many ideas should not all tie into the overall strategy, consumer insights or be stunningly perfect (in terms of creative and execution), but that it is to say that in this day and age, winning the marketing game is going to be about doing a lot of little things, over one big thing that brands will then cram into multiple outlets.

Doing "many things" also doesn’t mean to think small.

In fact, it’s probably a much more difficult strategy to organize and execute. In this era of Digital Marketing it’s also a significant amount of work because as the campaigns evolve, so should the creative and strategy. If some of the many ideas don’t float, we kill them and move on. If some of the many ideas take off, we nurture, optimize and push on. Our overall marketing strategy and execution becomes a lot more focused on the types of people we’re connecting to, where they’re connected, and how brands can add value while building trust and community. It sure does sound like it will take more than a "big idea" to get that done.

Maybe, "the big idea" in Marketing today is all about how we’re all going to move towards a "many ideas" platform?

Are the days of "the big idea" over? What do you think?


  1. We were kicking this idea around this weekend on The Beancast –
    I think there are two parts to this – every company needs to get their ONE BIG IDEA down as far as who they really are. On the other hand agencies have a huge opportunity in lots of small campaigns that are variations on the big idea. It’s not all based on the 30 second spot and everything trickling down from there.

  2. Yes, the era of big ideas is over. This is hard for marketers to admit, because any product manager obsessed with pushing a widget or bottle of soda thinks one big idea will move the world. And the agency she hires will feed that egocentric illusion. Hey, the agency has a stake in it too — award shows don’t go for the faint of thought.
    But why would a customer react to any single big idea? Consumers digest 3,500+ marketing messages every day. The brand ladders in our heads our full. Brands, in fact, are approaching infinite supply as every individual starts broadcasting on social media to become his own brand. The resulting, simple logic is as the supply of brands or messages grows more numerous and demand for consumption remains constant, the price — or value — of any single brand idea is diminished.
    Ideas are worth less today because we have far more of them.
    Mitch, you touch on the solution by offering many ideas to the market, using real-time feedback, and increasing the speed of execution. Think of Geico running a green lizard and cavemen and stack of money at the same time (to reach many slices of the population). Think of Starbucks cleverly unbranding some coffee shops to grab new market share (and create a testing laboratory). If the real goal of any marketer is to tip lots of consumers in your direction, you don’t need the biggest idea — you just enough little ones that pull them toward you. Consumers know the game; they know we’re trying to persuade them; they want more choice and control.
    So be straight up. Give them several ways to find you, several offers to whet their interest. There’s nothing wrong with ideas, but you need a lot to test the mutations and randomness that eventually make anything go viral in the Petri dish of our marketing ecosystem. Lots of small nudges work much better today, in a fragmented world, than a giant single push. You’re not the center of the universe, any more, brands. So go out and seed yourself among the consumer stars.

  3. What marketing person is still ‘NOT’ wanting to come up with that awesome “big idea” the one that the media are going to pick up and give you free PR. Twitter crowd creating tiny urls of the was it should be done. A feature spot in marketing magazine and applied arts or adsoftheworld.
    Got to admit I still start that way every time I try to think of a new campaign for something.
    But like you always seem to do, you have covered how fractured this is now, the increased complexity with so many avenues, and more skeptics.
    The value of a trusted brand is great, but I think as marketers we can better equip some of the smaller clients with big ideas that can compete.
    If you come up with the great big idea that you want to read ‘War and Peace’, you are still going to break it up into chapter by chapter. You just have the choice if you want to read it online via a podcast or e-book, or the good old fashion way.
    The big idea is not dead, just need to dream a little longer and perhaps even larger.

  4. Hey Mitch – I think you’re right on the ball here. For me the big idea has been dead for some time – repetition, responsiveness (to consumers, marketplace changes, etc.), and range (a device that works across platforms) are key, and a big idea isn’t necessary to execute very well.
    The irony is that we’re in an age that still features a lot of great Big Ideas – The Most Interesting Man in the World for Dos Equis springs to mind. The open question for me, though, is how much these move the needle, and how accurately can this be quantified?

  5. Mitch, this is a cool post. Thanks! I’d like to add to it and will probably refer to it in my next post.
    We marketers can start to apply “open source” messages (as I described in my review of the Global PR Week 1.0) but the traditional positioning will become increasingly important.
    @jack gets over 800,000 followers by tweeting on coffee places and walks around the city. People pay less attention in content and more in the source. In a previous post, I discovered that in social media who you are brings more results than what you say. That is another reason why the “Big Idea” is dying.

  6. @ david williams, well put!
    This shift to “many ideas” is probably heavily influenced by the amount of assessment, promotional and performance tools that have exploded onto the market. They’re all free. The result is that the benefit is driven not by “the big idea,” but by the savvy Internet marketer employing many smaller solutions. And ultimately the “many” are a better fit for businesses than being shoe-horned into “the big idea.”

  7. I think that one “big idea” might still be relevant for an overall view of a advertising/marketing plan, but within that bid idea are many smaller ideas that touch and focus on all the ways to execute that “big idea.”
    “winning the marketing game is going to be about doing a lot of little things”
    Definitely the right idea.

  8. The day of the big idea isn’t over. What’s new to many inexperienced marketers is the integration of media across various channels. The big idea is only one part of the overall marketing program. It may or may not work, but should not be discounted. Not all big ideas get big, but we should never stop being creative while as the same time managing other aspects of the many integrated marketing disciplines.

  9. Hi Mitch, befitting post for an economic landscape that is very different from what it was.
    In my opinion, marketing will essentially evolve into managing the many “conversations” out there and everyone will have to get involved, be it marketing, PR, support and most importantly, customer service. It will be a 360 effort and it means micromanaging every single customer. The technology allows it, and it will be the competitive edge for many companies for a while.
    So indeed, the “big idea” may not work any more, but marketing and the organisation working together in a big way towards common goals will define the 2.0 organisation.

  10. Mitch,
    You’ve got a great point, and evidently the courage to bring it up. I recently saw a blog post (can’t exactly remember where or who wrote it, but that further emphasizes the point) that remarked that the experience of blogging was essentially routinely throwing out many ideas and seeing the minority of them catch on, though not being able to really predict which ideas are not DOA. Whether it be the pace by which we receive and consume information, or the equalizing effect of communication tools, there is just more out there, making the “big idea” a whole lot smaller simply virtue of being among such a vast array of other ideas. All that effect-of-web-culture stuff aside, I think there are a couple of other points that back up your suggestion that perhaps the big idea mentality in marketing is passe.
    The first is that it’s ultimately contrary to what brands are after- loyalty. From the consumer perspective, what is the big idea behind Coke? It’s not the tagline du jour, the packaging, the commercials, the holiday Santa stuff, or any other promotion. It’s the soda, which many people have been drinking their entire lives. Sure, Coke has that luxury, but the point is that the big idea for consumers is always going to be the product or service. Their attention has to be earned by having a good product or service, not just a witty advertisement.
    The second is the value of a long-term relationship. You noted that often agencies come on board for one pitch, and the potential execution of that campaign, but are often cut loose when that campaign gets stale. What if a brand invested in a long-term relationship with an agency because that agency was able to demonstrate their understanding that the lifetime of a brand is a mosaic of different ideas over time? I’m completely with you on this. In fact, the long-term relationship is a defining characteristic of our business- we don’t spend 6 months to a year developing a website marketing and content strategy, prototyping, designing, and building new websites and applications only to part ways once they go live. When the initial project is finished, that’s when things get really interesting- when it becomes a long, but steady, progression of ideas that are tried, measurement, and reflection upon which work and why. It’s a great model for web, and seems to me would be even better for agencies of record.

  11. I’m gonna risk being the heretic here and saying that I completely disagree with you on this notion that the Big Idea is dead.
    The problem is the exact opposite. Today, we suffer from a lack of Big Ideas.
    I’m not talking about that crazy cool creative idea that wins awards and gets the media talking. I don’t care about that.
    I’m talking about the monster bit of insight that inspires everything else.
    In my view, the Big Idea is what governs all the Little Ideas.
    The Cluetrain Manifesto was a Big Idea.
    Meatball Sundae is a Big Idea.
    SPOS is a Big Idea.
    So are/were Obama, Communism, Punk Rock, Etsy, Basecamp, ConceptShare, Dos Equis (which someone else mentioned), and just about anything else I care to remember.
    The Big Idea isn’t dead. It’s more important than ever. What’s changed is that it’s not limited to just one medium or one commercial or one print campaign. The Big Idea unites the business, its employees, its customers, and its prospects. The Big Idea creates a movement – a Tribe as per today’s parlance.
    Long live the Big Idea!

  12. Mitch is probably right in the Internet sector as we’re struggling to communicate through so many channels right now that its hard to see how one idea can be the focus of all. At the same time, Twitter was really based on one simple idea, and there’s always room for more of that.

  13. Great post Mitch, not working in the ad industry directly, I’ll take your word on the dominance of the big idea in the past. My comment is more to do with the concept as it deals with ideas in general.
    I’m not sure there is such a thing as a ‘big’ idea innately. There are good ideas and there are bad ideas. Good ideas become big due their merit not due to any innate largeness of thought.
    And the many small ideas process (throw pasta against the wall to see what sticks) is also not a new thing. Many people use this in place of business strategy (I’m as guilty of trying this as anyone else at times).
    I think the abundance of data, and the close to real-time flow will force people into the fast instant decision making mode.
    I’m not sure this is a good thing, sober second thought is always prudent, but getting caught up in the flow of real time opinion makes us all a little like day-traders of information where we buy low & try to sell high as fast as possible and skim the margins.
    This I think will abate in time, as we all learn to filter better. And in turn this will lead to other issues (already present) such as the problem of applying the wrong filter thus getting the wrong data.
    More is not always better, but less than you need is even worse.
    How to cope with the deluge is the question & a problem I’ve been pondering for a while.
    Having being trained as an historian I always view data as source material, and in trying to imagine the task of an historian in 50 years trying to analyze now, leaves me breathless.
    Try & sort through the digitally enhanced present, what is real? what is true? – good luck in the future, it’s hard enough now.
    Where will the big idea (the big picture) that describes us, now, come from in the future?

  14. Hi Mitch,
    I think that ideas that start from the big-picture vision of the company (or product or service) are the ones that will win. But then – executionally – lots of little tactical ideas that reinforce and demonstrate that big picture vision are the way to go. Ideas based, as others have said, in really understanding who you’re talking to, down to the level of the individual consumer.
    What I think does NOT work anymore is a singular idea that just gets repeated over and over in the same way in every media. Plus, social media is *awesome* for tracking real time what works for people and adapting strategies based on new information. There’s simply no time to get a singular idea out there, let it run it’s course for six months and *then* see what happens.

  15. The thing about The Big Idea (otherwise known as The Gimmick) is it has historically been used so very frequently to cover up a sub-par or unremarkable product. The Gimmick is the result of an attempt to distract people from qualities that the actual product lacks. It becomes easier to market The Big Idea than to actually make the product better.
    Hopefully, as listening becomes more of a valued tool in business, the energy spent on The Big Idea can be moved further back in the process to create more truly remarkable products and services that don’t require gimmicks to get the word out.

  16. @Jeremy: The big idea is not a gimmick. I think if gimmicks are what we’re talking about, than yeah, that’s dead. Or at least it should be.
    To me, that’s a very small and limited way to understand the big idea. When David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach would talk about Big Ideas, I never got the impression that they meant slapping on some little trinket or catchy slogan. From my perspective, the whole notion of a Big Idea is to counter that type of marketing, where advertisers just come up with some little trick to get people’s attention. Big Ideas are about taking a product, service or brand and making them relevant and important in ways they might not have otherwise been.

  17. Yes, but would you agree that the energies spent toward ‘making them relevant and important in ways they might not have been’ would be better served further back in the development process rather than as purely a post-product-creation marketing push.
    The Big Idea isn’t always a Gimmick, but Gimmicks are frequently an example of a Big Idea, for better or worse.

  18. Twenty-five years ago when I started in this business we talked about big ‘campaign’ ideas. Then we talked about big ideas executed via integrated marcom (above and below the line). I’d argue that we’re still in need of big brand ideas. Only now we bring them to life by talking with instead of to consumers at every brand touch points on or offline. Much has changed with the digital age but the need for effective strategies anchored in consumer insights dramatized through a big idea hasn’t.
    I’d also argue that 25 years ago brand marketers were often information rich and insight poor. With all this real-time data, they are now even more so.

  19. The Big Idea will always be more important and impactful if it’s a part of the initial development process. Marketing in general is more effective when it sinks its teeth right into product development.
    That’s not a mark against the big idea. It’s one more argument in support of it.
    As for gimmicks, I would argue that any idea that requires a gimmick isn’t big at all. It’s a small idea that someone’s trying to dress up as a big one.

  20. Great conversation here. Having been in the business of big ideas for a long time (brands, tv campaigns, Superbowl ads, taglines, driving brand ideas) I have to admit that the days of big ideas are definitely over. Not that we shouldn’t pursue them (Just Do It, Drivers Wanted) but they are not enough to win in the marketplace. We need lots and lots and more lots of little ideas. Whether it’s a MadMen avatar (interesting that the marketing for a show about the old way of advertising is using the new way pretty well), an iPhone app, a crowdsourced outsome like the Sour video, or something we haven’t thought of yet. But here’s the twist. These little ideas have to be Big Little Ideas. Or they won’t get noticed. By that I mean we may need lots of touchpoints, thousands of conversations, more than one way to connect, but the many little ideas we come up with to do that have to in and of themselves be big enough to get attention, be remembered, inspire engagement and drive results. I may watch TV. I may live in social media. But I don’t pay attention to crap. Do you?

  21. Very true, Mitch. I think the same as social media is a one-to-one conversation in public, we need to respond to fragmented target groups that are becoming more and more individual with strategies that will work against each group. No one big idea in ad strategy will impact everyone it reaches.
    I wonder, in 50+ years since Mad Men era, is a part of the increasingly diverse target groups caused by the worldwide population more than doubling since then?

  22. The days of the big idea are not over, but there will be more than one.
    If brands finally start to listen to their customers, they will automatically multiply their sources for new ideas. The probability of discovering a big idea rises with the number of total ideas available.
    Furthermore customers usually have a higher level of emotional engagement with the brand than an agency ‘factory’. Emotional engagement fosters creativity, which in turn leads to big ideas.

  23. I would argue along with @Mario Parisé that the big idea is not necessarily dead. In fact in a world of many ideas, the big ones will always stand out more and isn’t that the ‘idea’.
    What I think is more important is ‘insight’ and how it informs the ideas. Never before have we had the means to glean as much insight into our clients’ customers, their thinking and response to products and services. Research and understanding have always been the foundation of the great ideas and now it is more readily available with social media and customer engagement.
    Whether it is a big idea or many little ideas, it’s the insight that counts.

  24. When we are into marketing an ideal campaign goes like this after getting an idea to evolve the 2 more important things we need to focus on are tactics and strategy and both of these things just need consistent innovation to deliver the best outcome.
    So basically its just not one killer idea at the starting point there are a lot of ideas involved throughout the process so we need to have quantity of quality ideas.

  25. Yup! Small ideas on multiple platforms is the answer. But there is really no such thing as a social media campaign – it’s all about building relationships.
    Many companies didn’t realize yet that marketing has become a one to one business. Instead of having 10 secretaries doing nothing, they should hire some evangelists to connect with people on social media and help them solve problems.

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