What’s the Big Idea?

December 19, 2019

This article originally appeared in Ad Age. 

Big Ideas do more than just sell a product; they elicit awe and wonder, create spaces where people can escape to and imagine themselves in lives very different from their own. Big Ideas change the way people think.

Great brand work can and should still do all of this today. But for some, the Big Idea (and its equally big-ticket price) is seen as passé.

Performance media campaigns—the fastest-growing campaign type for marketers—are built with granular measurement and iteration, infinite datasets and complex numbers, and more scrutiny on every marketing dollar spent than ever before. Modern marketing methods rely on analysis, modeling and an increasing confidence in the power of AI and machine learning. Big Ideas were never designed for these types of frameworks. Big ideas are nuanced and full of risk. They don’t sit inside spreadsheets. They’re the dreams of Mad Men, not Math Men, and no AI can replace them (or so we think).

In the past, whether the ideas were good or bad, their inability to sit inside CPU-driven analysis meant that they were always a leap of faith. People sensed their success, but there wasn’t anything to meaningfully benchmark against—we didn’t know, at a granular level, why they worked, and we certainly weren’t asking the complex questions that we are today.

Some might say that our obsession with measuring success is exposing, and accelerating the death of the “leap of faith” Big Idea. Performance marketing has created a new level of certainty that Big Ideas never offered, and so today, in the choice between certainty and a leap of faith, more are inevitability gravitating toward what they can prove. In 2020, performance marketing will continue to grow and expand in its importance to brands’ businesses—so much so that brand teams may start to compete for and even lose dollars to their performance counterparts. But is it only measurement that’s stifling advertising’s creativity? 

A race to the bottom

Young upstarts are playing their part too. Without the financial muscle to play in the Big Creative space, they’re showing the world they don’t have to. After all, many have built successful, high-growth brands, gaining their edge by exploiting the halo effect of performance media channels, leading legacy brands to doubt themselves and wonder if they even need a Big Idea these days. But we think they’re wrong.

Big ideas are nuanced and full of risk. They don’t sit inside spreadsheets. They’re the dreams of Mad Men, not Math Men, and no AI can replace them (or so we think).

Tactics heavily weighted only in bottom-funnel performance will find growth that’s not built for the long term. New brands might be winning the digital natives, but will there be a time when their witty ad copy and quirky personas don’t always hold up? There are only so many slots on the subway for memory foam mattress ads. And sure, you might be able to launch a new makeup brand today with nothing but Instagram, but where are you without a brand platform that’s constantly working to drive awareness, inspire connection and change attitudes? What’s your defense against the next disruptor? How do you create the “surplus” value that enables customers to experience additional utility from your branded commodity? If you don’t have these things, then it really is just a race to the bottom.

And, don’t forget market forces. With such low barriers to entry, the cost of mid- and bottom-funnel channels is set to increase. In this ecosystem, brands can’t build a long-term strategy if they can’t also accept that it’s not just “right content, right time, right place” that’s needed to change a customer’s mind or to drive a business. We still need the Big Ideas to deliver at the top of the funnel and to drive connection. Even more important, we need to continue establishing Big Ideas in order to accelerate growth within and across all marketing channels.

The way forward for Big Ideas doesn’t require marketers to take as many leaps of faith as they used to. But a Big Idea’s integrity also shouldn’t be judged against or forced into a performance measurement framework. Today, the lines are more blurred than ever between performance and brand marketing, and it’s our jobs to create new frameworks that can capture what Big Ideas are capable of across the new mediums where people are engaging. Just as we budget for certainty, budgeting for risk is something we need to be more comfortable with, because there might be a time when even certainty in numbers won’t ensure a brand’s ability to survive.

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