Forget big ideas

Innocean's Scott Suthren on flipping advertising on its head and taking a bottom-up approach.

planting-seeds_greenThis story appears in the June 2015 issue of strategy.

 By Scott Suthren

Although many don’t want to admit it, creative is currently under threat from twin barbarian enemies, and is poorly positioned to defend itself.

On one side it faces a frenemy who masquerades as a benevolent helping hand. This Judas is the fevered pursuit of big ideas tied to big proof, where the attempt is made to predict the efficacy of creative through data. It always brings to mind an image of marketers leaping through the streets of Pamplona to beat the consumer bull to the stadium and slay it with a pivot table sword while yelling, “I told you so!” Sadly, in truth, we are generally just getting gored and lying there on the filthy street, gasping for breath with a bloody consumer journey clutched in our fist.

On the other side are distributed content and the new engagement models that digital channels are forcing on brands. This Wild West of snack-sized consumer engagement eats well-thought-out creative for lunch.

Complicating the issue is that creative has become too precious, and is now in such a monstrous state that it is an exceptionally easy target. Seeking the perfect idea, the big “aha,” means huge exposure with a single point of failure and puts so much equity into a big idea, where nothing less than hero status will be an adequate reward. It has been glamourized and celebrated to the point where it has been stripped of the ability to adapt and accept a lower class berth. A ticket to Cannes Lions in steerage class? No f’n way.

In order to escape the foes that threaten to topple it, creative needs to face up to the way it currently operates and seek a new identity and means to express itself.

To find a possible solution I followed the model set out in the book Grand Strategies by Charles Hill, which shows that an understanding of the roots of statecraft can be found in great works of literature. For the roots of creative I reached to the top of my creaking bookcase to pull out a book I regularly turn to for deep insight into the human condition: The 13 Clocks by James Thurber.

In the book, Thurber writes about a whimsical character, the Golux, who helps a prince free a princess from a cruel duke by being his guide on a quest. He counsels the prince to challenge the duke to send him on a quest for gems, which will appeal to the duke’s greed and his habit of asking for the impossible.

They head off to find a woman named Hagga who was given the gift of tears that turn into gems. Unfortunately, by this point in her life, Hagga has heard all the sad stories and now cries for no one.

Flummoxed, the Golux has an “aha” moment: what if she cried from laughing? He sings her a stupid little song, barely knowing if it will work. But it does, and she cries more than enough gems to free the princess.

To me, Hagga is the modern consumer, the jaded audience. They no longer engage with the big ideas, the big stories. The duke is a predictive model, asking for the impossible. Creative aims to be the prince, but now it must be the Golux, as his novel, bottom-up approach is the answer to the threats it faces.

Forget big ideas. Try a lot of little ideas to see what sticks. Experiment. Start from the bottom, and play with a creative product that is emergent. Instead of starting with the intent to wow, aim to start with nothing. Put it out into social and digital and see what gains traction. Test many little ideas, at low cost, as rapidly as you can.

Once there is consumer momentum and proof that a concept will drive results, then invest in it and turn it into a bigger idea. This will negate the need for a predictive model or proof that a campaign engages consumers, because the proof is there that it already has.

It is important to note that I am not talking about agility. What works in software development does not work in the creative world. I am talking about being more like the new BFF content-creating group at BuzzFeed, where they rapidly put ideas out to sink or swim.

Only by embracing many small ideas, and by putting them in market as seeds to grow into big ones, will creative have a chance to face down the twin hordes at the gate.

Scott Suthren2


Scott Suthren is director of strategic planning at Innocean in Toronto.