On thinking small

For decades advertising has put all its faith in the single ‘big idea’ but now that the cost of failure has been reduced, it’s time to scale down and spread your bets, argues Goodby Silverstein’s Gareth Kay…

I’ve become increasingly convinced that one of the biggest issues facing the advertising industry is our pre-wired tendency to think big. We believe in the bigger the better – we always search for a big idea launched in a big way.

The problem is ‘big’ doesn’t work as well as it used to – it isn’t driving business or differentiation and meaning in people’s minds. The issue, I believe, is that we have confused the end with the means. Of course we want big business results and brands and communication that feel big, pervasive and central to culture. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, to achieve this we need to think and act small, not big.

Behavioural economics has shown that big problems don’t require big solutions. Also, perhaps counter-intuitively, small is good for business. In his book Little Bets, Peter Sims talks about how great companies stumble upon greatness. It comes from experimentation and learning from placing little bets rather than ponderously trying to birth perfection. Google’s a great example of this (originally it was just a project to index Stanford’s library). As are Starbucks and the way comedians and musicians try out new material. It’s what gets Pixar from “suck to non-suck” through huge amounts of early iteration and feedback sessions every day around rushes. But being small isn’t just good for start-ups, it’s great for big brands. At the PSFK conference in New York last year, the designer Andy Spade made the terrific point that “the bigger a brand gets, the smaller it has to act”. It’s kind of the common sense version of Coke’s ‘think global, act local’. More importantly, doing lots of small stuff is what makes a brand feel personal and gives it energy and momentum, the best leading indicator of future preference and usage. Being and behaving small creates unfair advantage.

So, how do we think and do small? Here are four things to think about:

1. Build a culture of experimentation, not planning

Do stuff and learn from it rather than learning from research. It’s a more realistic way to learn and more viable as the cost of trying stuff out is getting lower and lower. It’s about bootstrapping ideas, placing lots of bets and thinking about having a R&D strategy and budget for communications. This means being action-oriented and making communication products, not PowerPoint presentations.

2. Build brands from the bottom up rather than the top down

Brands aren’t how we define them but are things formed in people’s minds. As Jeremy Bullmore said many years ago, “Consumers build an image [of a brand] as birds build nests. From the scraps and straws they chance upon.” So wouldn’t it make more sense to perhaps, for once, build our brands from the bottom up rather than the top down; from actions rather than brand vegetables or mission statements? It’s again about being action, rather than word-driven. Make real things and see how they do in the world rather than spending three months thinking about whether your brand is amusing or funny.

3. Realise perfection is the enemy

We spend far too long trying to make things perfect – the words on a brief, the layout – rather than getting ideas out there into the real world. As producer Lorne Michaels says of Saturday Night Live, “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11.30”. We need to realise that good enough is, actually more often than not, good enough.

4. Be rewarded for good behaviour

Finally, this controversial one, as it’s about money and how we get paid. The way agencies by and large are compensated – time plus – encourages bad behaviour: get as many people as you can to work really slowly. On one thing. Repeat.

What if we got rewarded in a way that encouraged better behaviour. What if we got paid for outcomes rather than outputs or inputs? What if we got paid for business results driven by our portfolio management? What if we got paid for being more efficient in the way we work and prodigious in our output?  What if we learned from builders and contractors, of all people, and got bonuses for finishing stuff ahead of time?

To be more relevant as an industry I believe we need to break the tyranny of big and embrace small. We have to stop conflating the outcome with the means.

As I’ve said before I think the agencies of the future will combine the storytelling skills of Madison Avenue with the inventive, purposeful experimentation and speed of Silicon Valley. Small ideas, and big success, will live here.

Gareth Kay is an associate partner and director of brand strategy at San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. This piece is a distillation of blog posts at garethkay.typepad.com/ brand_new/small/

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