James McNulty

Creatives are always being asked for a ‘big idea’, but what does that really mean?

Nine times out of 10 in advertising, when some­one walks into your office, they ask you for a ‘big idea’. Even if the brief is to do point-of-sale materials for a brand of cat litter sold only on the Isle of Man. But what exactly do they mean?

If pushed, ‘they’ (by whom I mean clients, account handlers, planners, creative directors – anyone who is asking you to do something) might say that ‘big’ means ‘has scale’ (aka feels big), ‘can run in a variety of media’, or ‘has legs’ (ie can run for a long time).

I do sometimes wonder how it can be that every brief is for a new big idea … surely if the last one had given rise to a big idea then the next one should just be for further executions? But no. Always a new big idea. People seem largely to have forgotten the distinction between a ‘campaign’ (which requires a ‘campaign idea’) and an ‘execution’ (which is an example of that idea). Even Campaign, ironically, no longer seems to know what a campaign is. It will write about Sony’s new ‘campaign’ for the Bravia model, featuring plasticine bunnies in New York. But it isn’t a new campaign. It’s an ad. The campaign is ‘colour.like.no.other’.

But let’s leave aside this confusion over whether ‘big idea’ means ‘new campaign idea’ or just ‘new ad’. And let’s look at its components in turn.
First of all, the key requirement of a campaign, supposedly, is that it should be waged over a period of time. (In the same way that Napoleon’s European campaign consisted of several individual battles, eg Austerlitz, the retreat from Moscow.) But is that true?

Apple’s famous 1984 Superbowl commercial must certainly be viewed as a ‘big idea’ or a ‘big ad’. But it didn’t have legs. It didn’t lead to a slew of Orwell-themed advertising, perhaps featuring Bill Gates with a comedy George Orwell moustache. In fact it only ran once.

There are very few long-running campaigns nowadays. The Economist would be one, and Marmite’s You Either Love It Or You Hate It would be another. But even our best advertisers, like Nike, vw, and Honda, don’t have a genuine ‘campaign’. They tend to have a series of individual executions, all written in the same tone of voice, and (in some cases) loosely linked by a slightly vague endline.

Despite this, we are still asked to prove that our idea is a ‘big idea’ by presenting not just work to the current brief, but work that the client might want to run in year two, year three, year 3000 etc. ‘But don’t you realise?’ I want to scream, ‘there isn’t going to be a year two!’ There never is.

In addition to the length of time it’s supposed to run for, this mythical big idea must also have ‘breadth’. We’re supposed to prove that our idea is a big idea by the fact that we can write not only tv ads for it, but posters, and radio ads, and iPhone apps. But this is complete rubbish.

The biggest ad of the last few years, Cadbury’s Gorilla, didn’t appear in any other media, as far as I know. (Yes, there were many YouTube mash-ups, but these were created by the public, not by Fallon). There were no Gorilla press ads, or Gorilla 48-sheets. And no ‘guide the Gorilla through the maze to his drum-kit’ Flash games.

Fallon used other media to commu­ni­cate other things about the chocolate, producing a range of beautifully-photo­graphed print executions that riffed off milk cartons and milk bottles, for example. Does that mean Gorilla was not a big idea? Of course not.

The final component people seem to require when they harp on about a ‘big idea’ is that an ad should present a big spectacle. Giant stallions crashing through a broiling sea? Yes, that’s pretty spectacular. Other big ads that were ‘big spectacle’ would include It’s Mine, the US Coke ad in which giant balloon mascots conduct an aerial tussle over the skies of Manhattan, or, going back a bit, British Airways’ Manhattan.

But not all ‘big’ ads are big spectacle at all. Honda Cog, for example, takes place entirely within one medium-sized studio. As does Skoda Cake. Drench water’s Brains? A puppet-sized studio.

So if it doesn’t mean ‘has legs’, doesn’t mean ‘can run in a variety of media’, and doesn’t mean ‘creates a big spectacle’… what do people mean by a ‘big’ idea? Well, I’ve kicked this around in my head for at least a couple of hours now, and I actually think that by ‘big’ they just mean … ‘good’.

They use the code-word ‘big’ because they know that if they asked you to ‘do something good’, that could be construed as insulting, and thus is not an approach found in management textbooks. Besides – all your ideas are good, aren’t they?

James McNulty (a pseudonym) is a creative at a London advertising agency

More from CR

The Graduates: Eilin Bergum

In our special graduate issue this month, we feature the work of a small but perfectly formed selection of this year’s creative graduates. We’ve also canvassed their opinions on their education and their hopes and dreams for the coming years. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ve invited all of them to show their work at Mother’s new gallery space

CR September issue

The September issue of CR is all about this year’s graduates. We have given all our feature space over to eight eager, fresh-faced young creative types yearning to make their mark

The Graduates: James Callahan & Joe Keirs

In our special graduate issue, we feature the work of a small but perfectly formed selection of this year’s creative graduates. We’ve also canvassed their opinions on their education and their hopes and dreams for the coming years. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ve invited all of them to show their work at Mother’s new gallery space

The Graduates: Q&A

In our special graduate issue this month, we feature the work of a small but perfectly formed selection of this year’s creative graduates. Here we canvas their opinions on their education and their hopes and dreams for the coming years.

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency