the big idea in 5 steps

By • Mar 23rd, 2009 • Category: Lead Story, The Digital Strategist

The big idea – the only differentiating factor I believe sets you apart from your competitors. Think about it. Every other agency has that award-winning Creative Director, a hundred slides of chest-beating credentials, and another 50 slides of market search, a great car salesman for a presenter, and that impressive influencer audit. Anyone with half a brain can recommend an A-list blogger to seed to. But can everyone come up with a big idea?

Tactical ideas are often mistaken for the big idea. Having a blogger engagement event is a tactical idea. Sending out a direct mailer is a tactical idea. Hiring little Lolitas with thick blowjob lips for your road show is a tactical idea. A big idea is, as the phrase suggests, is an idea big enough to be applied in most, if not all, media and executions. A really good big idea will even disrespect time. Take one of the greatest brands, Absolut Vodka, for example. The big idea, I would assume here, was “to surprise and delight”, by means of seeing familiar things in a new way. You haven’t seen that change, have you?

Traditionally, from a communications perspective, the big idea is born from the crisp pages of a creative brief. I’m grateful for the endless nights spent writing them.

Save for larger organisations that can afford a decent Planning department beyond a disgruntled planner and an overworked intern cutting tearsheets, the creative briefs are mostly written by Suits. A creative brief is to a Suit what a book is to a writer. With each creative brief penned, the Suit aims to guide and inspire the Creative Team to produce Cannes-worthy greatness that meets and supersedes the Client’s marketing objectives.

But of course, I’m just painting the best-case scenario with positivity served Government-style.

In reality, you’re lucky if your Suit even gets his or her deadlines right in the creative brief. Harsh, perhaps, but when you’re tackling 15 accounts at the same time, working 14 hours a day as an overpriced courier service, and given approximately an hour to develop a creative brief for a year-long campaign, mistakes are almost inevitable. Cut the Suit some slack. The only writing any despatch boy does is that of filling up his consignment forms.

As a former Suit, I’ve written possibly a hundred creative briefs to date. And I’m discounting the straight-to-Studio production briefs that require nothing more than an obedient Adobe Illustrator expert. During this period, I’ve had 3 creative briefs rejected by no other than the mighty Creative Director. And a really temperamental Traffic Manager.

The first was emotional – the Creative Director tore my badly written creative brief in my face, in full view of my team. Looking back, I do agree the violent expression was rightfully served, but boy was it painful for a rookie. The second was uncalled for, really. I was new to this particular mammoth of an agency, and the resident bitch of a Traffic Manager had an all-newbies-must-be-bullied mantra. Without reading my creative brief for a spilt second even, I watched the Traffic Manager throw my pride into the smelly post-lunch trashcan. Quite calmly, in spite of my boiling temper, I fished my rejected creative brief out of the trashcan, and slammed it back on her desk, with extra chilli sauce. Throw it only after you’ve read it. I recalled hissing.

The third, and last so far, saved my reputation and I shall remain forever grateful to the Creative Director who forwarded my creative brief to the Chief Strategy Officer for “a serious review”. Without the overhaul of thought required with the guidance of my Chief Strategy Officer, I would not have won my first advertising award.

The big idea doesn’t come easy, but I’ve personally found the framework used in a creative brief useful, especially when it’s my job now to develop the big idea.

Here’s how you can come up with the big idea in 5 steps.

The views expressed on this blog are my personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer or its clients.

Image courtesy of gapingvoid.

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11 Responses »

  1. Very nice post, which I think will be useful in many other design fields. I particularly like the first 2 steps, which many seem to miss, jumping straight into the proposition without seeing the big picture and asking “why”. You can’t get the big idea without seeing the big picture.

  2. Hi Pat
    Mmm… I suspect “the big idea” is a 90s concept. Not to say that the overarching brand concept (“Just do it!”) is dead, but that’s not the same as the big campaign idea and transmedia and fragmentation make that a dangerous play these days. Different media, different mindsets, different approach required. The medium is the message etc etc. We’re also so incredibly media literate now that we’ve got the patience and attention span of gnats. Repeat yourself longer than a week and not only will people get bored, they may even start to hate you.
    YMMV
    =) Marc

  3. i liked the slides, helps with my thinking in at least problem solving. i’m not too sure about it being a 90′s concept. i agree at times, but i also don’t know enough to believe big ideas can trancend decades. romantically, i guess they do -)

  4. Marc, “Just Do It” is not dead! Like you said the idea is still there, it’s just conveyed differently on different mediums. I’m not from Nike or any of their agencies but I’m hard pressed to find another idea that is so simple and lasting. On that note, 53 slides is a bit much for me to digest on the net. 5 would be memorable. Easier said than done of course otherwise I’d be posting it myself.

  5. [...] blankanvas: the big idea in 5 steps Pat Law has written a fantastic article on how to create the big idea through her own creative framework. I really like her phrase: “It should be kept in a single sentence“. [...]

  6. Coming from you, coleman, I’m deeply honoured. God knows you’re hardly generous with your praises, which does make you a lot more real that half the people I meet. I agree that the framework can be applied to many other design fields. At the end of the day, if we haven’t got a problem, we don’t need a solution. Scary how sometimes, we skip the diagnosis of determining the problem, and jump right to coming up with the solution.

  7. Hi Marc,

    Actually, I believe the “big idea” was born out of the Mad Men era of the 60s, in the hands of Ogilvy, Chiat and Burnett. Ah, the great men who have since left us.

    Yes, I’d imagine that since we’re so media literate these days, in a good number of countries at very least, our attention span has shrunk significantly. I don’t know about repetition though. I don’t think people will get bored after a week, but really, it depends on the nature of the content. I’d die if I have to watch a typical “We are this almighty governing body! love us!” TVC but hey, give me AXE commericials any time.

  8. Harlow brian,

    The next pitch that lands on our laps will be yours to crack. Heh heh heh.

  9. Hi pee,

    I would’ve skimmed down the slides significantly and replace text with visuals if I was presenting the slides personally, but in this case, I’m relying on the readers to read the presentation themselves. And I hate having more than one message on a slide. Hence 53 slides!

    Yeah I know, 53 slides is quite off-putting but oh well.

  10. I really enjoyed this. Loved the sentence-per-slide approach, which enabled major lulz at your punch lines.

  11. [...] fact, great marketers know that the Big Idea is more important than the platforms they choose on which to apply tactical activities. A blogger [...]

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