The Unimportance Of Ideas


“Without action, the world would still be an idea”

General George F. Doriot

The old-school charisma of the leading man...  the tenderness of that scene with her and his jacket... the luminous, beautiful quality of the whole thing...  the choreography of that scene on the staircase... the inspired casting... the joy and revelation of the final scene... And oh, to have a dog like that. 

These were the things that we spoke about as we left the cinema one chilly Sunday evening after seeing The Artist. We could have mused about what the ‘idea’ of the film was, or what it was ‘about.’ But we weren’t aspiring film critics or students of art theory. We’d just wanted some Sunday night escapism before the reality of Monday's approach became all too inescapable.

While the analogy between what we make and a piece of art is far from faultless, thinking back on that evening did prompt me to reflect that for all the talk of ‘ideas’ in our industry, they really aren’t for people in the real world at all. They’re for us. They’re for ad- and marketingfolk. 

What people experience and respond to is execution.

After all, much of the time, we really aren’t paying that much attention anyway. For the most part, we don’t regard as learning about brands as very important. Brands and their expressions are just part of that endless torrent of thoughts, images, events and feelings that make up our taken for granted world. 

Certainly we don’t consciously process most advertising as verbal or factual messages. But we do consume its codes and signals. All the imagery, sounds, symbols, music, references and so on of creative content are not merely tricks designed to draw attention to our message or to make it memorable. They are the communication.

And as Robert Heath has shown in his work on low involvement processing, while we absorb this stuff, we don’t think about it. 

In this context, we’re hardly inclined to ponder what the ‘big idea’ is. While we might agonize over them in marketing- and adland, in the real world we don’t experience marketing content as abstract ideas.  


People didn't get excited by the intellectual idea that footballers have the chance to make history at the World Cup.  They got excited by an epic piece of film that brought that idea to life with flamboyance, scale, wit, star players and pop culture references a plenty.

Execution is what stirs the emotions, excites, intrigues, and ignites desire.

This is not to say that the idea is entirely redundant. 

It's always great to have great content, but as our Amanda Feve put it recently, if you can't articulate the idea behind it, it's hard to turn it into a multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-country, multi-agency campaign that feels like it's all come from the same place.  

That doesn't mean that you need to get too precious about it, just that you need to be able to articulate what the idea is.  

In other words, ideas are a way we use to inspire, manage, marshall, and co-ordinate our efforts and end creative content.  Having an idea ensures that what we do hangs together, that successive expressions of it build on and refresh people’s memory structures.

Those of us not charged with the hands-on act of creating can be (for better and for worse) comfortable in the world of abstraction. So the recognition that in the real world people don’t consume or ponder the abstract but experience the real and the visceral, should sound a warning note that we not get too caught up in the theory and abstraction behind the work. 

Certainly we should invest time and energy thinking about the idea. It is what gives it shape, coherence, and consistency over time. And in as much as brands are merely patterns and networks of associations in the mind, all of these things matter a great deal.

But if we allow ourselves to become divorced from the execution (or allow others to divorce us from it) then we become separated from the very thing that people experience. 

For strategy isn’t theory, abstract and intellectual. It’s real and visceral and tangible. It is nothing more than a series of coherent and coordinated actions.  And we should never be content with merely painting the outlines of an abstraction. As the General said, "Without action, the world would still be an idea."


The brain of Amanda Feve

The Artist, dir. Michel Hazanavicius (2012)