From the TalentWorks Career Guide

Ideas? Remember Those?

If You Want to Make It in this Business, Bring on the Big Ideas

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The world headquarters of TBWA Advertising was located at 292 Madison Avenue, back when a Madison Avenue address was still de rigueur for an agency's letterhead. It was the summer of 1991, and TBWA was in full swing with the iconic Absolut campaign, now polishing its fame to blinding perfection. The agency exuded the untouchable cool of an international catwalk model: aloof, poreless, slightly bored, altogether intimidating. If advertising had paparazzi, they would've camped outside the door. Entering the lobby made one feel suddenly self-conscious, acutely aware of some otherwise irrelevant detail, such as the fact that the dry cleaner's seamstress had recently re-sewn a button in a slightly off-color thread. Yet on the first day of my unpaid summer internship at TBWA, walking into that lobby, I felt no intimidation whatsoever. Not because I possessed that same unattainable cool, but quite the opposite. I was too clueless even to have a clue of how clueless I was. Just two weeks earlier I'd graduated from college wearing my new $29.95 Thom McCann white pumps that coordinated with my Laura Ashley hair bow.
Emma Hall
Sally Hogshead is a consultant, speaker and author. Her career includes stints at Wieden & Kennedy and Fallon, and she co-founded Robaire & Hogshead, where clients included Target, Remy Martin and Conde Nast. In 2001, she opened the West Coast office of Crispin Porter & Bogusky. She is the author of 'Radical Careering: 100 Truths to Jumpstart Your Job, Your Career and Your Life.' Her blog is www.radicalcareering.com/hogblog.


During my first week, I discovered a most startling fact: The creative department staff locked their file drawers at night. Why? So no one could steal their ideas. This, as you might imagine, intrigued me entirely. What was this intellectual bullion? These same employees unthinkingly left personal valuables such as watches and cameras on their desks at night, yet locked their file drawers? Whatever lay inside those OfficeMax treasure chests, I wanted some of it.

Locking up the ideas was a little extreme. Perhaps. But actually I'm beginning to wonder if our industry knew something back then that we've since forgotten: Nothing in an agency is more valuable than ideas.

Until fairly recently, clients and agencies shared a reverence for ideas. For those of you who got into the business recently and have only seen the near-extinct species known as a print ad trapped in amber, here's a flashback. Computers were a novelty (a spiffy little number named the Mac Classic had just been introduced). Type was still hand-lettered for meetings, then, once approved, sent out overnight to be set. Brands didn't have to compete for attention with iPods, BlackBerries, YouTube, Wii video games, Facebook or Netflix. They barely had to compete with cellphones, websites or a newfangled thing called e-mail. Media options were so limited (single page or spread?) that we didn't have to deal with an entire range of variables, which meant that if a timeline was a week long, six-and-a-half days were spent developing the strategy and idea.

Advertising has changed since then -- and decidedly for the better. We're entering a new renaissance, one with more creative opportunities than ever before, a time when "idea" is no longer synonymous with a 30-second TV spot. Yet in our rush to conquer new media, true insights are often becoming an afterthought. Especially among clients. We're at risk of going to an opposite extreme, throwing out the baby with the 30-second bathwater. As we're exploring various mobile-platform-this and Facebook-application-that, there's only a fraction of time and energy left over to spend on a little thing I'll nostalgically call "the concept."

Caveat: Lest you think I'm a cantankerous old-timer with a "those were the good ol' days" chip on my shoulder, please know that's not the case. I'm not romanticizing the sepia-toned days of traditional media or suggesting we return to churning butter by hand. New media is very cool and very necessary, and unquestionably the future of our business.

To be successful over the long haul, your career can't be founded upon trendy epiphanies or shiny new executions. Just as a pun wasn't a concept in the late 80s, a typographical treatment wasn't a concept in the mid 90s and shock value wasn't a concept in the late 90s, so does new media need a core idea in order to reach its full potential. Most new-media revelations will seem laughably quaint in a few years. But true human insight will never go out of style.

Our greatest value -- as employees, leaders and entrepreneurs -- will come from the substance of our ideas. The people who have the most job security, make the most money, carry the most prestige -- at all levels, in all departments, across advertising, marketing, film, PR and every other communication profession -- are idea people. They can consistently do the heavy lifting of solving problems with new solutions. These stars do much more than merely sell; they have the horsepower to expose something so incredibly potent about our needs, values and ambitions that they can incite a change in behavior. Think about that. In a cynical and jaded world, few governments have enough juice to voluntarily change behavior among millions of people the way Apple can.

The reality is that now there's less time for big ideas, and depressingly, in an age of fear and uncertainty, often less client appetite for those ideas. We're all running in a million directions at once. On many assignments, the process is so pressured and frenzied that we're forced to skip a stage of mental heavy lifting: that amniotic mess when a brand engages deeply with the messy and difficult question of what it actually wants to say. Even presentations to clients are starting to showcase forms of media in place of concepts:

Agency: We're proposing a new concept: a series of webisodes.

Client: Interesting. What are they about?

Agency: Ah, don't know yet. We'll figure it out later.

When authentic insight starts to lose currency in the client equation, we devalue our raison d'etre, thereby leaping to the slippery slope of commoditizing who we are and what we do.

Call me retro, but I miss the craft. Increasingly, our process has been crushed to the point that it no longer includes those magical steps in which we sort through a litter of irrelevant data to discover a single, glittering truth, to polish that truth into a meaningful message, then finally to adjust this message through countless mental Rubik's Cube variations until it clicks into the perfect combination of thoughts and emotions.

There are countless fantastic exceptions -- hellooooo, Dove "Evolution"! -- that have an awesome concept in which brand message is intrinsically born out of its media. Yet in and of itself, "YouTube" is not a concept. "Second Life" is not a concept. "SMS text" is not a concept. These are forms of media and they still need a killer concept to be used to their fullest potential. The medium might be the message, but it's still no substitute for a concept. As our media gets cheaper, faster and shorter, don't allow your thinking to get smaller.

Now, back to the internship. By the end of the summer I'd realized two things with utter certainty: Ideas are the most valuable currency in a career. And more important, I'd stop buying shoes at Thom McCann.
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