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This article was first published at IHaveAnIdea where we provide content.
I was fortunate enough to be in New York a couple of weeks ago for a DDB global chinwag. We talked about advertising and DDB’s philosophy towards advertising, which the network has in spades thanks to its founder Bill Bernbach. He revolutionised the industry, he taught us that advertising was about insight, originality and engagement. Everything he said back then is still powerful and true today. One of my favourite Bill Bernbach quotes reads:
“The real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realms of imagination and ideas.”
He’s right. You will never find the answer in the brief. Planning will not tell you how to write an ad. You’ll get the facts, an insight, some research – but the rest is up to you, the creative. Always has been, and will be for a while yet.
One of the themes we keep coming back to in this ‘post-digital’, ‘neo-brand-network,’ ‘always-on’ age is, “what does an idea look like? How do you judge an idea?” Bill Bernbach talks about imagination and ideas. Creatives know how to use their imagination, they know how to come up with ideas – but what’s an idea? Do we still need Big Ideas, and if we do, what is a Big Idea? I’m not going to pretend to have the answer, but I can hopefully shed some light on the discussion that took place in New York and takes place in agencies all over world, every day.
Let’s try a bit of philosophy ourselves. What is a Big Idea not? It’s not a TV script. It’s not a key visual. It’s not an iPhone app. It’s not a QR code. It’s not a Facebook app. It’s not a tactic. I could go on…
A Big Idea is a thought that keeps giving. A Big Idea is a world you can occupy and keep drawing on. Let’s jump out of advertising for a moment into the realm of the novel. I don’t know if you’ve read Fatherland by Robert Harris. It’s essentially a gumshoe thriller with a twist: what if WWII had ended with a truce rather than an allied victory? What if Hitler was still alive in 1964? What if the regime had covered up the Holocaust? When Robert Harris had this idea he said he couldn’t sleep because of the possibilities that flowed from this construct. The idea kept giving enough for him to write a novel that sold 3 million copies.
Movies create worlds that the studios can draw on film after film. It used to be all about ‘High Concept’, now it’s about the world – which is why Harry Potter was such a gift. (It has, unfortunately, also led to Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and the Star Wars prequels.)
The Big Idea gives creatives a world they can occupy. They can almost physically enter it and see the possibilities surrounding them, like the Robert Harris novel. What’s more, once the client has bought your Big Idea and entered into your world, they are with you for a while. There’s no shopping around the back alleys for tactics from any old tin-pot agency, they are your client for as long as you can keep mining your world. And the awards cabinet should also benefit – being able to go back to a well thought-out rounded strategy that keeps giving is never a bad thing.
DDB Amsterdam won endless awards and built the strongest insurance brand in the Netherlands with their world “A for Apeldoorn” – an everyday Dutch town, where unlikely and surprising mishaps happened to its residents. Every ad ended with the name of the insurance company and the line, ‘Just Call Us.’ Whatever happened, the insurance company was only a call away, and whatever happened, creatives could come up with idea after idea within this world.
‘The most interesting man in the world’ by Euro RSCG even has the thought in the title. It’s the Chuck Norris Internet meme taken to a classy place and it’s a world that the creatives and consumers online all enjoy playing inside.
A Big Idea is not a line, but it can be a line, ‘Have a break, have a Kit Kat” (created in 1957 at JWT, made impotent in 2004 by Nestle when they changed it to ‘Make the most of your break’, and now changed back) shows the power of a Big Idea wrapped in a line. But it’s still a world – the world of stress and the need for breaks. Which creative wouldn’t still love to be let loose on that line? …Oh, the ads you could create, the apps you could come up with – it’s a fun world we all want to immerse ourselves in.
W+K have created a world for Old Spice. There isn’t a consistent line that holds it together in the eyes of the consumer – but I bet you any money they have the brand idea written down and stuck on the wall. But these days the consumer is more surprised, more intrigued and more likely to share the work when the work isn’t landing a heavy line every time. Instead they are invited into a world, into a surreal and modern place where men are on horses and bears are in sidecars. The Big Idea doesn’t have to wear its heart and its message on its sleeve – as long as the clients understand it, the creatives can work with it, and the work is consistently great.
The acid test is always Nike+. How does it fit into this theory? Simple, Nike+ opens up the world of running. It still uses the Bernbach powers of persuasion to bring you in – it promises you that if you enter this world you will get more out of running, run more often, be fitter etc. It may be a product, a service and advertising bundled together – but it’s a world the creative can play in, the client can understand and the consumer enjoys being a part of.
A final case for creating worlds, not ads, is that it will change your agency. It will break down the walls between traditional and digital; an app will be as much a part of the world as a TVC. And your clients will keep coming back for more.
It’s a theory you can stick in your David Ogilvy pipe and smoke. We all love Big Ideas, we like to be a part of new worlds and these worlds have the power to unite and ignite.
But I’ll let Bill Bernbach bring me back down to earth:
“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula.”
Written by Chris Baylis, ECD, Tribal DDB Amsterdam.