Why ideas are like coconuts


“I’ve got alovely bunch of coconuts
There they are all standing in a row
Big ones, small ones, some as big as your head “

For many years The Ad industryhas been in thrall of “the big idea”, and being so it regularly points to examplesof those that have lead to have produced significant brand success;historically think BA’s world’s favourite airline, and more recently Coke’sOpen Happiness.

As the marketing andcommunications industry struggles to comes to terms with the impact oftechnological, economic tsunamis and their cultural consequences, the role andimportance of the ‘big idea’ is under examination.

Lets start with a quote from DavidOgilvy

“It takes a big idea to attract the attention ofconsumers…Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like aship in the night.”

Applied specifically toadvertising this suggests that the key objective is to gain attention in anenvironment where the communication is competing against a myriad of othermessages.  Being of its time it’s based onan interruptive model of advertising, where the so-called ‘audience’ (?) isdoing something else and the brand tries to momentarily grab their attention, and generate awareness or better still interest.

There are a couple of issueshere:

1.    The world has changed and interruption is acknowledged less andless asan effective means of gaining attention and driving awareness, let alonethe new prime objective of ‘engagement’.

2.     Some clients and some agencies don’t always recognise what reallyconstitutes a “big idea”.

As far back as 1983 Ogilvy himself wrote,

“I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains abig idea.” 

Morethan a quarter of a century on it’s likely that that ratio is even worse. Not great odds if you are investing everything on a ‘big idea’.

Don’t get me wrong there arestill examples of great thinking and execution that deliver what we all recogniseas a big idea.  But should the pursuit ofsuch represent the only framework within which we work to deliver solutions forour clients.

A big idea can be seen as a compelling thought thatgives a brand a strong sense of self in the eyes of its audience.  But is it always just a ‘creative’ idea?  I think not.

Brands such as Howies, demonstrate that a big idea canbe just as much a philosophy of doing business that informs creativity, as acreative expression of such.  And it’swith example such as this that we begin to see that potent ideas come in allshapes and sizes.

“Like any company we requirea profit to stay in business. But it is not the reason we are in business. Thething that has not changed from day one is the desire to make people thinkabout the world we live in. This is, and always will be, why we are inbusiness” 
Dave Hieatt

The big idea here is the purpose of the business, which in turn drovethe expression of the business through lots of small ideas, each of which helped definethis purpose; in product, poetry, online and in a retail environment.

Gareth Kay has some interesting observations about the role and power ofsmall ideas, and puts a strong case for focusing on small ideas to providebrands with momentum and drive them forward. (See his series of posts here)

“Creating brands built around a coherent stream ofsmall ideas makes them stickier and more powerful – being the brand of new newsand seen as having momentum and energy is the best leading indicator of futurepreference and usage.  It also means you are more likely to thrive in aworld where 95% of things die”.

He also points outthat the costs of trying things is getting lower and lower, which means it’sincreasingly better to do stuff and learn from it rather than learning anddoing.   
There’s an increasingly strong case for getting thingsout into the real world rather than spending too long trying to make thingsperfect. 
This is the iterative approach of Silicon Valley, rather than thecrafting process of the traditional ad agency, and one whic agencies are already adapting to with their internal ‘labs’.

Turning briefly tothe aforementioned Open Happiness platform developed by Wieden & Kennedyfor Coke, we could see this as a ‘big idea’. I think though it is more useful to see it as what John Williams of Greyoriginally termed as a ‘Long Idea’.

This term sees theidea in the context of time, as an evolving entity, with a narrative.  The introduction of an element of story tothe idea, provides more space for the development of different (but stillcoherent) threads, and provides more space for participation. The launch isjust the beginning and the objective is to develop ongoing ideas that enablethe brand to enter the lives and culture of its ‘audiences’ (that wordagain!). 

Maybe a good wayof thinking about this is the analogy of a wave energy converter, such as thePelamis, below.


Each section ofthe ‘worm’ represents a small idea, and the longer the worm the more energy itproduces.

Coke understandthis well, as is demonstrated by its presentation at the Cannes Lions earlierthis summer.  Their “Liquid and Linked” approach (whose name works nicely with the wave energy convertoranalogy) places a new emphasis on dynamic storytelling to connect with peopleacross multiple connection points. They recognise that we live in amulti-dimensional world, which demands deeper interaction.  As they put it:

“This hasbrought a change in thinking, a change in staffing and an understanding thatnow, creating valuable and shareable content is the way to build brand love andvalue for the long term”.

Thisrecognition of content’s key role points to way of working where small ideasthat are coherent with the ‘Long Idea’, become both the fuel (or the wormsections) providing the brand energy, as well as multiple opportunities for on-goingengagement.

Whatever the size and shape of the idea its important that we realise its the start or a part of constant, evolving conversation or story, not a burst of activity then silence for six months.
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