What's the big idea? Too few in ad industry know anymore

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Slowly, without anyone looking, a hallmark of modern advertising for the last 50 years has all but disappeared: The Idea.

The Idea was the central innovation of advertising's Creative Revolution. All other major elements-the copywriter-art director creative team, the use of contemporary cultural references, the understanding that, as David Ogilvy put it, "the consumer is not an idiot, she is your wife"-flowed from it. The Idea sought to connect a marketer's product to the consumer's interests, using as a bridge a clever, emotionally rich, culturally relevant story, told with fully integrated words and pictures.

"The Great Idea in advertising," wrote legendary market researcher Leo Bogart in his classic text, "Strategy in Advertising," "is far more than the sum of the recognition scores, the ratings, and all the other superficial indicators of its success: It is in the realm of myth, to which measurements cannot apply."

Today, advertising is suffused with non-ideas. True, marketers now accept that the 30-second TV commercial has reached the end of its useful life among an audience that is diminishing anyway. But instead of heating a new cauldron of creativity, the frantic search for alternatives has, rather, driven them to seek solace in formats, not in the meaningful combination of content, form, venue and intent.

Celebrity endorsements, sponsorships, event marketing-all structural concepts as old as advertising itself-are being touted as the next big thing in an industry that desperately needs reinvention. Product placements? "Jell-O again!" as Jack Benny used to say.

Consider what today is passing for creative. The notoriety of the Mini Cooper's product placement in the film "The Italian Job" has made every automotive marketer hunger for its own-thus, we get the Pontiac GTO in the made-for-cable film "The Last Ride." Celebrity endorsements, too, have made an inglorious comeback; three decades after football star Joe Namath endorsed one shaving aid (Noxzema), soccer star David Beckham is endorsing another (Gillette).

Back then these conceits at least had the air of novelty. But when no fewer than six major marketers employ Tiger Woods-Tag Heuer, Buick, Accenture, Electronic Arts, American Express and Nike-it's hard to argue any one is getting a singular lift from the association.

The Idea was the Bernbach generation's response to the dwindling effectiveness of these techniques. They understood the value of a "unique selling proposition," but saw additionally that integrating the USP into a well-crafted narrative could make it live in the hearts and minds of consumers forever. It's telling that our memories of the best of these campaigns still evoke the marketers themselves. Volkswagen is "Think Small"; Alka-Seltzer is "I can't believe I ate the whole thing."

Why did The Idea die? Certainly, marketing-services companies are under me-too pressure from clients, who want their own piece of the last big thing. Ad agencies, in particular, find it difficult to resist; owned by margin-pressured conglomerates, they are less likely than ever to push back against clients. Nor are they awash with talent, as creatives are drawn to Hollywood, and strategists to opportunities and income potential of investment banks and consulting.

I recoil from the thoughtless Bernbach worship. At the same time, it's hard to argue that the umpteenth product placement on CBS's "Survivor" will ever garner a return as great as Absolut vodka's ROI on its marketing investments.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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