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The Danger of Hiding Behind the "Big Idea" in Advertising

3 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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Creatives love "big ideas." We love talking about "big ideas." We love putting "big ideas" at the front of the advertising world. We remind every creative that their portfolio should show off the "big idea." And we even have award shows to validate our own "big ideas."

But what is a "big idea?" I mean, in the real world, has anyone ever seen a big idea? No, they've seen executions. Yet, nine out of ten times, when I ask someone to show me a big idea in advertising, they show me a TV spot. Or a stunt...which was turned into a TV spot.

We've used the idea of the "big idea" as this amorphous entity in advertising. And we perpetuate this thought that a big idea comes with big budgets and big eyes. Yet, in the face of a massive shift in our industry, we're holding even tighter onto the big idea and this narrow definition of it. When, instead, we should see that big ideas don't need big space. That a big idea isn't always so big.

But that we need more small, smart ideas.

We Need Less Big Ideas

We're entering a world where efficacy is king. Where success isn't something that has years to show its face. So, if your idea doesn't pay off, if it doesn't show signs of success early and often, then it's gone. And that means that big ideas have a bigger risk. One that clients aren't always open to taking.

Big ideas don't need big space.

Now, some creatives may say, "We need to keep fighting for big ideas, regardless of what the client says!" Sure, sneak an idea through the great filter and watch its budget get cut, its visibility get reduced, and then reveal how it may have been a big idea when Ryan Reynolds and Scarlett Johansson are shooting it with Michel Gondry in Bali...but it wasn't a good one without all that money.

A Need for Small Ideas

We don't always need a big idea that tries to boil the ocean. Most of the time, we need a small idea. Something so focused on doing one thing so well, that it's more effective and interesting than the big idea could be at that moment. It's the same reason niche brands are able to work in markets where massive brands dominate. Small is quick, it's powerful, and it's focused.

The problem is, people look at big ideas as the only place for creativity. That these small opportunities are afterthoughts, not worthy of our imagination. But small opportunities are where we need to be the most creative. Small, but smart.

The Idea Knows Where It Lives

Nick Law (former Publicis CCO, now moved into Apple) explained it well at a keynote at Cannes this year (I heard about it, didn't get my toes in the South-of-France sand) and in talks to specific agencies (saw this in person).

Basically, he said that as creatives, we inherently ideate knowing the limitations of the platform (or we should). A 60-second Super Bowl spot, an AR Snapchat lens, even a finger drawing in the sand is a platform. Whatever it is, the idea you have is automatically linked to its execution, so you'll ideate differently knowing where it lives. You probably do it without even thinking.

However, because we've spent the past 75 years advertising the same way on the same platforms, we've settled into the rut of a "big idea" being best executed and understood through a print ad or a TV spot. And the shame is, that's killed a lot of ideas that can't be executed in a clever headline and visual or a multi-million-dollar production. Ones that require a different experience.

Smart Ideas, Above All Else

We need to abandon the idea of "big ideas" being the backbone of our industry. As creatives, we should be focused on innovation and imagination, regardless of the scale of the idea. We should have the passion to make small ideas feel big, and regardless of their size, to always make them smart.

Thanks for reading!

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