What’s The Big Idea?

I f the past 50 years have taught marketers anything, it’s that attitudes drive behavior. The way people feel about brands is directly reflected in their purchasing habits. And for 50 years, marketers have exploited this through brand communications. The entire industry of mass advertising was shaped around the idea that it could modify the attitudes of large segments of the population through words, pictures and stories.

Fast-forward to the present, and it’s still true that attitudes drive behavior. But the ways that marketers can modify attitudes have changed dramatically, creating a rather complicated pool of approaches in which to swim or potentially drown. What hasn’t changed is the client’s question: “What’s the big idea?”

To answer that, let’s look at an athletic apparel manufacturer wanting to sell more running shoes. The traditional ad agency will craft TV spots and print ads explaining the differentiating qualities of the brand. The DM agency might develop a compelling retail promotion that drives store traffic. The event agency might sponsor a marathon. And the interactive agency might build runners’ tools that help them train better and more efficiently.

All four agencies had the same mandate (“Sell more running shoes”), yet each approached the challenge (“Drive attitudes and behavior”) differently—and no overarching idea guided all the work. That’s understandable because with our varied marketing disciplines, we no longer have a common language for discussing and measuring ideas. A traditional advertiser’s big idea often has little in common with an interactive agency’s big experience idea.

So is it possible to develop a truly BIG idea that can drive and unify work in every mode of customer engagement? We believe it is. But we also believe most traditional marketers are hindered by equating big ideas with storytelling ideas.

The modern advertising agency is a factory for taking client briefs, gathering consumer insights and churning out stories that tap into that philosophy. People at those agencies are trained and paid to tell stories, mostly without knowledge of or regard for the ways other channels drive attitudes and behaviors. And the longer they maintain their philosophy, the more apparent it becomes that they do not have the right people to develop truly big ideas that can drive work in multiple channels.

Consequently, most of what masquerades as big ideas today can only guide what brands say in their traditional ad campaigns.

To find the big ideas, one needs to step up to the level of brand platforms—where ideas are so big they can guide not only what brands say but also how they behave. The litmus test of a platform idea is its ability to almost instantaneously trigger dozens of multichannel execution ideas.

A good example is seen in the Nike brand, which stands for inspiration and enablement of athletic performance. The inspirational side has come from Nike’s memorable ads featuring the world’s most accomplished athletes; the enablement side comes from decades of product innovation.

But inspiration and enablement now play out in many other ways, from the training tools on Nikegridiron.com, which drive enablement of better football skills, and the inspiration of Nikewomen.com, with interactive music videos showing new dimensions of working out, to the customization engine of NikeiD.com, inspiring and enabling athletes to express their inner designer. Inspiration and enablement are clearly ideas that travel across channels and guide work.

Another example is the Apple brand, which stands for technology innovation and design simplicity. These two principles guide everything, from software design and product development to retail stores and advertising campaigns.

Nike and Apple both demonstrate that platform ideas are distinct from storytelling, although both brands are sometimes expressed through simple phrases like “Just do it” or “Think different.” What’s interesting about Nike and Apple is that even without a copy tagline, both brands could shine through the multichannel work.

Platform ideas are so important and powerful they can last for decades, surviving turnover in client management, agency relationships and the ever-changing behavior of consumers.

Marketers who lack a powerful brand platform often have difficulty creating a cohesive set of engagements for consumers, even if all the work looks the same. From this platform perspective, can anyone really say what Coke or Sony or Sears stands for today? So is it any surprise that these brands have lost their power to drive attitudes, and therefore behavior, across multiple channels?

If we acknowledge that the job of marketing is to create powerful modes of multichannel customer engagement, then the medium truly has become the message. And I believe that interactive lies at the core of how we engage consumers in the 21st century.

As traditional ad agencies continue to chase storytelling as the only kind of big idea that matters, they distance themselves further from their target consumers, whose lives have changed with the impact of technology.

Consumers now expect brands to make relevant contributions to their lives. Unless traditional agencies can learn new tricks of engagement for this century, they risk losing their relevance—and marketing dollars—because they can no longer deliver the big idea.

Bob Greenberg is chairman, CEO and chief creative officer of R/GA in New York and a monthly ‘Adweek’ columnist. He can be reached at bobg@rga.com.