Why Size Still Matters, Big Ideas Aren’t Dead, And ‘Think Small’ Is Dangerous Advice


"The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated"

Mark Twain

It’s become a little fashionable in some quarters to sneer at the notion of the Big Idea. I’ve never been a huge fan of the language of 'Big Ideas'. It feels rather pompous and cheesy. However, if there is a vaguely coherent case against big ideas, it seems to go a little like this:

They’re old school

They rely on big budgets (production and media)

They’re the product of TV advertising

They’re dependent on repetition

They’re the product of traditional agencies

They move slowly and not at the speed of culture or the internet

They fail to leverage the economies of the internet

I want to argue that claiming Big Ideas are ‘dead’ - or at least on the life-support system - is nonsense. Certainly dismissing big ideas simply because the language pre-dates Facebook is hardly an argument that would win over any jury. No-one in their right mind after all, would argue against Just Do It or Open Happiness or The Power of Dreams or Smell Like a Man. These are about as big as ideas can get. And they continue to create huge economic value for the brands they promote.

The critical thing here is that they aren’t narrow, executionally-defined advertising campaigns. They are broader and deeper than that. They’re ideas that define the totality of the brand, and as such, they’re capable of encompassing and producing an extraordinarily wide variety of expressions and interactions. They’re capable of housing blockbuster content, but they’re also demonstrably capable of generating more fleet of foot stuff. And they’re brought to life through activity that goes well beyond communications and campaigns.

The Big Idea Is Dead argument is borne of our own careless use of language (indeed as soon as agencies start talking about ideas, you can be fairly guaranteed that some half-baked befuddled nonsense is going to follow).

It’s an argument that looks at the world solely through the lens of execution and expenditure. It assumes that ‘big-ness’ lies solely in high cost execution or big broadcast investment. It sees bigness as only residing in the campaign. Not in the brand. In doing so, it falls into precisely the same trap as the lazy advertiser assuming they have a ‘big idea’ on their hands simply because they have access to bloated production and/or media budgets.

Whatever some might say, big ideas are not dead - because brands still benefit from them. Even if they’re not necessarily brought to life through epic execution and media.

Big Brand Ideas connect with what matters to people. If you want people to notice you, care about you, having strong feelings about you, if you want to stir people’s hearts and minds, be impervious to the offers of competitors, and keep coming back to you, week in week out, or year in and year out, then it helps to connect with something pretty compelling.

Big Brand Ideas (as I think Richard Huntingdon put it) create mental monopolies. In the competition for memory and preference, big brand ideas push aside competitors.

Big Brand Ideas give us a long-term reservoir of meaning and inspiration to draw executional ideas (of whatever size) from. If there isn’t a big idea at the heart of our brand, we'll struggle to produce small stuff, let alone bigger stuff. And we'll certainly struggle to produce stuff that steps outside the realm of advertising or communications.

Big Brand Ideas ensure that we are not continuously reinventing the wheel, that we don’t constantly reset the clock to zero and that our actions build on each other.

Big Brand Ideas ensure that however diverse our actions might be, they are coherent enough to build long-term associations in the memory (which is all a brand is).

Big Brand Ideas ensure that we don’t think short-term and merely limp from tactic to tactics. Value is not created through short-term thinking. When the overwhelming evidence is that campaigns rarely, if ever, pay for themselves in the short term only, big ideas ensure that we think about creating long-term economic value for our clients.

Big-ness then is first and foremost an issue for brand strategy. Without a powerful, organizing idea at the heart of our brand, that drives the business forward deliberately, a world of chaos and pain awaits us. The rhetoric of small risks reducing ourselves to a bunch of brand illiterates and short-term tacticians, denying ourselves the opportunity to be anything more valuable or influential.

So ignore all the chatter about big being outmoded.

Find a brand idea that connects with what matters to people. One that has real resonance. Then bring it to life in the most appropriate and imaginative way. Whether that’s through big execution or small.