Unless Your Content Efforts Have a Big Idea, They Will Pass Like a Ship in the Night

The brains behind some of marketing’s biggest ideas share tips on how to grow your own and get them heard.
big ideas

In the immortal words of David Ogilvy, “You will never win fame and fortune unless you invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night.” 

Maybe this is why the majority of content is invisible and ineffective: A minuscule 5 percent of content generates 90 percent of engagement, according to Beckon. Said another way, 95 percent of your content does nothing. And even less content achieves notoriety at the Cannes Lions, normally held this week.

There are few big ideas in the content arena. Content teams have become expert tacticians at building and converting audiences by fulfilling search intent and applying content to the customer journey. But too often, this leads to categorical, me-too approaches that are hard to differentiate from one another. 

Banks are a great example of this. Most of the national and regional banks generate significant amounts of decent-quality content. But put your thumb on the logo on the page, and it’s hard to discern the brand—there’s an absence of differentiation, an absence of distinctness, an absence of empathy and, above all, an absence of a big idea.

Maybe, because most content teams organizationally answer to brand teams, they do not see it as their role to come up with the big idea. But the big idea is the opportunity to make a difference, and because content teams have as much right to the audience insight, they are well placed to come up with that idea. In an age of many loud, competing ideas, how do you get yours heard?

I reached out to my career-favorite creative directors in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, Singapore and Sydney to ask their advice about how to define, develop and nurture big ideas. Thanks to this team for responding so quickly and with such alacrity. And also to one of the most respected global CMOs, Simon Lowden of PepsiCo, who also weighs in.

There are some lessons here for brand and content teams alike.

What is a big idea?

My favorite definition comes from Andy Greenaway. A big idea is distinct work that resonates with its audience. Distinct resonance. These two words, in the hands of someone who knows how to apply them to creative problems, can unleash extraordinary power. Not just in terms of artistic brilliance, but also economically. Distinct makes you get seen. Resonance makes your audience care. Simon Lowden added that the big idea should be a force multiplier, and it should be ingrained with the highest levels of empathy.

What is the best way to generate a big idea?

To do great work, you need not one but two big ideas. There’s no point in having a big creative idea if you haven’t preceded it with a big marketing idea. The big marketing idea works out why the prospect might be interested in the brand. What problem it will solve for them. This is explained in the brief and expressed as a single-minded proposition. If this isn’t right, the creative won’t be right either. If the proposition is right, then all that’s required is an idea that dramatizes and/or demonstrates the benefit encapsulated in the proposition. —Steve Harrison

You need to grasp the difference between a compelling insight and a mundane observation. One will lead to a revelatory breakthrough, the other to the swamp of mediocrity where everything swimming around in the murky water looks the same and sputters the same inane claims. —Andy Greenaway

Big ideas are often generated by something your brand has done in a smaller way for a sustained period of time. The thought is, develop the kernel of an idea into something larger that resonates in an even more impactful way. Big ideas don’t happen every day, and they have to be organic to your brand or else they seem grossly inauthentic. But if you are constantly open to them, set aside time to identify them and are able to leap to action, they can be among the most rewarding work your organization will ever produce. —Didi Gluck

The last place to go looking for a big idea is in a big conference room and daylong brainstorm. More likely, the big ideas will come from the bottom up, and from the front of lines of customer management where data is being captured and shows a trend that can be built on rapidly for competitive advantage. —Simon Lowden

How do you know when you have a big idea?

A big idea is easy to spot. It’s like striking oil ... You’ve been drilling for days, perhaps weeks or if you’re lucky (or experienced) just hours. Then suddenly it gushes high into the air. You know you’ve struck something because you can instantly see how it works in any media, how it connects to consumers, how it solves the problem. Executions tumble out. You see it in all its forms in an instant. It energizes you. You’re full of adrenaline, and you can’t wait to tell people about it. Like yelling, “I’m rich, I’m rich!” —Guy Barnett

Big ideas are uncomfortable. They normally have an opinion. A point of view. Big ideas are brutally simple and direct. Just do it. —Simon Lloyd

A big idea expresses a sentiment, a truth, in a way that alters our minds and perceptions on a given topic or the world. A great idea causes tears, laughter, pain. Never indifference. It changes us in big and small ways. It’s a tall order to be a big idea. —Sacha Reeb

Great ideas make people act. What leads to action? Emotion. Therefore, a great idea must convey emotion. —Drayton Bird

Great ideas also inspire all marketing disciplines and channels. As the idea moves from digital to broadcast to point of sales to customer service, it gets better and better. Anthony Abdool and Jason King

“An idea can turn to dust or magic, depending on the talent that rubs against it.” —Bill Bernbach

I do know one thing for certain: True ideas, original thoughts, are incredibly fragile. Especially during their childhood. And too many hands on them always proves fatal. —David Nobay

Of course, there are many big ideas that have died during the journey from the boardroom to the audience. Like a beautiful butterfly, a beautiful idea can be captured, put in a jar and then be accidentally suffocated. As hard as it is to conceive of a big one, it’s very easy for an idea to expire. —Steve Diamond

You’re always going to need others to help develop it, sell it, approve it, execute it and promote it, and so nurturing becomes a balance of knowing when to retain tight control and when to let go and put it in the hands of people more talented than you. —Guy Barnett

 A big creative idea looks like any other creative idea if it isn’t presented persuasively. Don’t expect every client to see what you see in it. Many clients won’t see its potential or will be afraid of it being too different. Most clients talk a good game about creativity, but when it comes to standing up for something truly different and perhaps even uncomfortable, that’s hard. A big idea depends on a great client—one who appreciates what it can do for the business and has the cojones to stand behind it. —Bruce Lee

In response to Bruce’s feedback, Simon Lowden added that brand managers need to retake responsibility for the curation of big ideas and not outsource that to anybody, even to the most trusted agency partners.

How can content develop distinct resonance?

Most content is invisible. It’s buried in a sea of other content. Nothing more than wallpaper.

The first order for your content is to be distinct. In the words of Byron Sharp, that means your brand and your content need to stand out, so that your audience can easily identify it, through use of design, tone of voice, content type, your values and identity. Stop using those stock images that are shared across your category.

The second order is to develop content that demands attention. Like the best advertising, which never assumes that the audience is waiting for your message, you should deliver your content in a way that makes a bold, memorable promise that entices the reader or viewer to engage with the content. Dare I say it, be more provocative with your headlines, at the risk of diluting your SEO reputation.

The third order is to find resonance so that your audience cares. Find a need that your audience truly cares about. What better time to do this thinking than now, when your customers’ needs were just rapidly reprioritized, as safety and security came to the forefront. 

You will need to dig deep to come up with big ideas that stand out, demand attention, resonate with audiences and perhaps even go against the grain, but that is where your content strategy can move from simply checking boxes to being truly distinct. 

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