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What is an Idea?

Proverbial life is full of little admonishments. Never volunteer. Never explain. Well at the APG we couldn’t survive without the mildly coercive culture of volunteering – it keeps the show on the road. Explanation? Opinion and the elegant unrolling of an argument are what Noisy Thinking’s all about. But never ask a question. That’s the Planner’s stock in trade isn’t it?

Richard Storey, Global CSO of Saatchi and Saatchi was surely ruing the day he pinioned Craig Mawdsley on stage at the launch of the APG Creative Strategy awards with his innocent-sounding killer-question. Craig was merrily outlining how important it is to have a good idea at the heart of an APG submission. ‘Craig. What is an idea?’ piped up Richard.

I was struck by the brutal simplicity of the question. Is ‘idea’ the most over-used devalued currency of our business? Or is it our most precious asset? How do we and should we use it? What’s it for? Where does it take us?

So several weeks later there was Richard was on-stage in Havas coolly impressive basement room preparing to answer his own question. (Coercive volunteering in action). He was in good company. Over 160 Planners were there to listen to Richard, Tracey Follows, CSO of JWT and Jim Carroll, Deputy Chair at BBH ruminate on the idea of the idea.

Noisy Thinking is all about intelligence, original opinions, provocation, and speculation about what is and what might be. It even gets philosophical at times. But what it’s sometimes best at is being useful For the large audience at Havas last night it was a rare chance to hear many years of extraordinary and distilled experience from people who’d-played with and fought with the idea of the idea across time and campaigns, and profound changes in the media landscape, and had come to some beautifully expressed and useful conclusions.

Richard was first up and immediately argued with his own question. (More proverbial admonishment: If you’re going to ask a question, make sure it’s the right one).

Ideas are not inert and descriptive, they are active. So the correct question is ‘What does an idea?’ It should do something to people, get into their brain and change their behaviour. He talked about the insistent idea, the ‘idea that woke me up at 4am and demanded to be written down’. For the person who comes up with the idea, you can almost feel it when it’s right. There’s a scientific phenomenon called the AHA Effect that describes the sensation and pleasure you get when the penny drops. But an idea isn’t right until you’ve bothered to really assess it – it needs to do things to people who get involved in them.

In a process of working together an idea can move it on much more quickly whether or not it’s ‘right’. So define your idea by what it does, not what it is.

Richard described several M&C campaigns that defined his thinking. ‘Clear the fog that surrounds cancer’ – offering clarity where there’s doubt – had acted as a guiding thought that shaped the campaign on the granular level of symptoms and time. For Change for Life it was about giving families the impetus and means to change (the hardest thing) and this had informed not only M&C’s own work but also that of their partners in the campaign.

His parting advice was more admonishment – this time tinged with an action-oriented idea: ‘Actions speak louder than words’. ‘Be wary of the words’. Take Whopper Sacrifice – the outrageous and audacious action is sacrificing a friend. The words make it stick but the idea underneath is the big and active bit.

And finally, ‘be wary of puns’. They make the idea stick but they are not an IDEA.

Tracey started with the vernacular: ‘Good..’, ‘bad..’, ‘nice…’, ‘big..’, ‘solid…’, ‘ground breaking…’, absolutely no fucking…’, someone else’s…’There are ideas of every colour and shape. It’s not helpful to have no definition but like Richard she was more interested in what an idea does than what it is. So she asked some normal people – 10,000 of them via a JWT panel – what is the greatest idea of all time? They chose TV, mobiles, electricity and cars over Bowie, cats’ eyes, ice cream, porn and soft loo paper. Tracey’s point was that the powerful ideas are the ones that put people in touch with each other and help them make connections.

She talked about an idea layer cake in which communications ideas sit between an intangible brand world-view and a tangible product invention or innovation. So the comms idea is the ‘soul of a piece of communication’, a new combination of existing elements. She reminded us about IFTT which is about combining and re-combining existing digital elements but pointed out that these are essentially not really ideas but little inventions: Useful, but not really meaningful. Comms ideas are conceptual and practical like Amazon Kindle and Apple iTunes.

For Tracey ideas need to link and connect - be a thought or suggestion to a possible course of action. A car will always trump a washing machine in the great idea stakes.

So what does an idea do? What does it connect together? It has to have meaning to be memorable and link two elements – what is, and what could be. We need to think more about the notion of ‘betterness’ than difference. The 2013 crop of Xmas ads mostly gave a glimpse into what is and for her, mostly failed.

An Idea should be about seeing old things in a new way or new things in an old way; otherwise it’s an observation, not an idea. And if you want an idea to be well branded it needs to tap into the ideology at the top of the cake. A branded idea connects what is with what ought to be: A passport to ‘ought’.

Is it chemical?


Finally Tracey referred us to one of the longest running advertising ideas ever – 75 years of Kit Kat. She unpacked it brilliantly and then sent it into space.


Jim Carroll started with a notice on John Hegarty’s wall: ‘An idea is a thought or plan formed by mental effort’- less a guiding principle, apparently than an admonishment to creatives to work harder….

Jim found it an intimidating subject, thereby further humbling the rest of us planning mortals. So he decided to embark on a Scorsese-inspired personal journey through comms ideas, effectively writing his own brilliant brief for the speech. Which is as it should be.

He started with 1970’s jingles and visual motifs like the Andrex puppy and Yellow Pages ‘fingers do the walking’. This was the era of passive advertising and the repeated, dramatic motif. It was a planner ‘s job to make it up and help drill in into peoples’ heads.

In the 1980’s BBH launched the Levi’s campaign and in the process took ideas beyond motifs to a narrative constructed with a heroic user at its core. They used the same constructed narrative but a jokey version of it, for Lynx.

Jim pointed out that in the 80’s ideas were defined by a medium, in this case narrative and TV, and how this caused problems with print. So the BBH way was to construct print ideas as jokes – Boddingtons being a prime example.

It was also crucial to success to create a visual, understandable brand world. For Levis of course this was 1950’s cool and for Olivio a sunny, Mediterranean world.

Jim was disarmingly honest about BBH’s response to ideas of the time that didn’t fit their world-view. They loved Egoiste but had no idea why it was good, as it had no story. Gap was also troubling to them as the ads were elegant and beautiful but empty. No story and lots of elegantly displayed product.

Jim ruminated on our obsession with ‘big’ when something is important to us. Hence ‘big’ data. But he did think that the idea of a big idea, a coherent thought that pulls it all together and directs future action is incredibly important. He also believes in the importance of visual equity: O2 and bubbles, Orange and orange, Vodafone and red. The understanding of an idea needs to accommodate an aesthetic too.

He talked about the Audi campaign feeling outdated – all those black cars out of black. So they changed the aesthetic to white cars out of white. Bingo.

Then another rule breaker in the form of an iPhone press ad that ignored every admonishment around ‘great idea’ by being ‘disintermediated’ – aka just showing what it did. No idea to ‘get in the way’, just an emotional product demonstration. It worked.

So what is a communications idea? It has to be able to accommodate all of these:

Repeated dramatic motif, constructed narrative, easily digestible immediate joke, brand world, big unifying concept, visual equity, emotional product demo.

Paul Smith apparently talks about the power of the repeated image and Jim thought that a lot of what we do is building meaning through repeated expression. An idea is a meaningful pattern and brands a re aggregations of meaning so we can change meaning through patterns. Can you show it? See it? Repeat it?

Then it was time for questions.

Beware what you ask. You may end up on stage in a few weeks time…. My final admonishment.

Sarah Newman

APG Director

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