Kill the 'Big Idea.' Long Live Steve Martin!

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Google's 'Friends Furever' is better than a Big Idea, writes Julia Robertson.
Google's 'Friends Furever' is better than a Big Idea, writes Julia Robertson. Credit: Courtesy Google Android

Comedian Steve Martin can help strategists. Seriously.

Strategists get paid to be interesting. My quest to learn more about people and places has found me detonating dynamite in a dank Bolivian mine to observing forest-dwelling, Pagan priests. I've stretched what it is to be a social scientist. Learning stand-up seemed a natural next step, considering humor's serious role in ads. I signed up for Steve Martin's MasterClass.

What follows isn't a 101 on joke-telling; I'm puny at puns and our humor may differ. Here's a taste of what makes me titter, stolen from comedian Gary Delaney: "The Americans had Nyquil. The British had Lemsip. It was The Cold War." Did that make you merely sniff? Suit yourself. But here's something we might soon agree on: the big idea should be bludgeoned, and Steve Martin should be handed congratulatory mead, as his teachings on stand-up can help us craft campaigns.

Die, Big Idea
To filch a line from Laurence Green, former chairman, Fallon London: "The best briefs steer everyone to what [designer Raymond] Loewy called 'optimal newness' -- answers that are at once fresh but somehow familiar, original and appropriate." How new is your newness will depend on factors, such as your client's and your consumers' appetite for novelty, depending on the interplay between their physical and emotional states and their environment.

Walk into any given planner's briefing and you'll also likely get asked to: "Give me a big idea!" What is a big idea? Does your answer resemble one of the following?

"A big idea..."

A. Contains originality, familiarity and information (explicitly or implicitly told); resonates with consumers' desires; engages folks' emotions, and imparts the brand's ideals that match the brand's behavior.

B. Builds brands for 10+ years in any media.

C. Changes lives for the better.

D. Is big.

D is popular. Therein lies the rub. The big idea is myopically size-ist.

If I say, "think of a polar bear," you'll likely picture a ... you've guessed it. If I say, "think of a big idea," you'll likely imagine a construct for which the attribute of size is a main focus. This tendency is too limiting; creative thinking requires individuals to juggle complementary and conflicting constructs inside their minds simultaneously. Moreover, even if size always mattered, thinking small can prove mightier than big, as DDB showed in their classic work for VW.

Listen to Steve Martin
Steve Martin advises aspiring stand-ups to "Be something that they'd pay to see. Make them say, 'You gotta see this.'"

Let me paraphrase this to better fit our industry: "Together, let's make things, people might feel willing to pay to see/hear/feel/smell/taste. Make people say, 'You gotta experience this.'"

That last part sounds like making "sharable content." Correct. That's a given. But I'm here to suggest that instead of the big idea, we set our creative bar at making things people might feel willing to pay for, because, in our era of free, streaming content and ad-blocking apps, that's a vertigo-inducing feat. Hitting that bar requires brilliance derived from your grasp of culture, commerce, consumers ... everything.

Ads I'd pay to re-experience include:

  • Droga5's "Friends Furever" (Android) that packs the feel-good power of a milky drink, whilst conveying Android's open-source software.
  • DDB's "Bleachers" (Mars) that makes me glad to be beyond adolescence, when contagion-talk was rife beneath the bleachers: "Sitting on Loo seats. Will you get pregnant?"
  • TBWA's "Soccer Cathedral" (Adidas) that was simply stunning. And, okay, it was also very‚Ķbig.

Your turn: which work, in any media, is deserving of your digital wallet?

"None," you might say. Well then, create it!

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