Execution Has Become as Important as the Big Idea

Pivotal Role Helps Distinguish One Product From Another

By Published on .

Alan Wolk
Alan Wolk

It's long been part of the conventional wisdom in the ad world that a good idea trumps a good execution. After all, the idea alone should be enough to carry the day.

For the sake of clarity, let me define what I mean by "idea" and "execution." An "idea" (in the vernacular of ad purists) is what Ted Bates called the "unique selling proposition" -- ideally, the one notion you want the consumer to associate with the product. The execution is the art direction, copywriting, film technique, etc., that bring that idea to life. The argument runs that if the idea is strong enough, then an ugly typeface or not-overly-clever commercial will not be able to diminish its power.

That theory worked well when (a) consumers did not have direct access to a product and (b) were exposed to the idea via mass media on a regular basis. But when those conditions no longer exist, execution takes on a more pivotal role. It's what helps us distinguish one product (or website) representing a larger idea from another.

To wit: There are countless sites that provide cooking recipes. It's the how -- the execution of the site, and how it looks and feels and handles -- that determines the difference between success and failure, between a user staying on the site or moving on.

You can think of websites in the same vein as retail. Most of the "ideas" are not that unique. There are lots of stores that sell midprice jeans and khakis, but something about the way the Gap executed that idea enabled it to stand out from the pack. Ditto Pottery Barn: Lots of stores sell country style furniture, but Pottery Barn became a global phenomenon because of the way it executed that concept, making it a lifestyle rather than a purchase.

How this plays out in the digital realm can be seen by looking at some of the winners in the first annual Hive Awards for the Unsung Heroes of the Internet (a show I started this year in conjunction with the fine folks at International Award Group).

Take TripIt.com, which took home a prize for best web application. TripIt does what any number of other sites do or attempt to do: organizes all of your travel plans in one spot. But it's the execution -- the way it does this -- that's made it so popular. There's no learning curve to the site; everything is incredibly intuitive and it's clearly designed with the user's convenience in mind.

TripIt is also social: You can share your travel plans with friends, coworkers and family members, thus making coordinating plans even simpler. Here again, it's not so much that they've made the site social; it's how they've done it, in a nonintrusive way that doesn't put the onus on the user to figure out what's going on.

As we judged the awards, we found execution tied into user experience played out in many other winning entries. A Ford Mustang site created by Firstborn took the idea of allowing users to design their own cars into another realm by providing a tool that was both cool and fun to use and by providing Mustang enthusiasts with a way to share their creations with each other. (Thousands did.)

The popular MadMenYourself game from Deep Focus relied on both the cutting edge designs of Dyna Moe and a simple tool that allowed you to save the end result as a Twitter or Facebook profile picture to take a not-that-unique idea -- "create your own avatar" -- and turn it into something truly special.

Two final takeaways: the "single auteur" theory works well in traditional media where one or two people can see the final product through from conception to final vision. But a website or application requires many visions: different people working on different aspects in tandem, riffing off each other in much the same way an improv jazz band does. This "hive mind" mentality requires more of a high-level overarching idea to work (e.g., "it's all about ease of use") than it does any marketing-focused notion or authorial vision.

Which brings me to the final takeaway: Execution and design are now, more than ever, an intrinsic part of the marketing strategy, or idea. The shrinking influence of the ad-as-intermediary, that middle step between desire and purchase where the marketer could tell the consumer what they wanted them to think about the product, means that the product itself has to do a lot more of the selling. Design, execution and user experience all become ways to convey the product's key differences. And while they can't deliver an explicit message about the product, the messages they implicitly convey about the brand, often prove to be far more valuable.

One last real-world example is Starbucks, one of the first companies to take advantage of this trend. Walking into the now-ubiquitous chain during its early days, it was the overwhelming aroma of coffee and the design of the place -- the furnishings, the lighting, the music, even the logo -- that hit you. It all said (subconsciously), "these people must really care about their coffee and their customers a lot to design such a cool looking place," and it certainly got millions of us to cough up an extra two or three dollars for a cup of coffee.

But is the genius behind Starbucks the idea of the place and the fact it looked at coffee like other people looked at wine? Or was the idea a fairly banal one -- serve upscale coffee -- that was saved from ignominy by its execution? And, more importantly, can we legitimately separate the two?

I'm thinking we can't. Because when you come to a product from something other than a traditional advertisement, e.g. a search ad, a social media recommendation, word-of-mouth from a friend, the execution is the product, not a marketing vehicle for it.

Alan Wolk is the founder of the creative strategy consultancy (and blog) The Toad Stool.
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