Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The thought that counts

Published in Mar-Apr 2015

It takes much more than a fresh thought to create a real big idea. It’s what that thought leads to, that counts.

There are few professions as smug and as shallow as advertising (and this isn’t a criticism). I have said so many times – advertisers spend a lot of time attempting to transform the mundane into the extraordinary/glorious/unique (insert your choice of hyperbole). When it works, you get a glimpse of something real and deep and relatable.

But what works, exactly? A truth that is universal enough to touch all sorts of people? A unique, hitherto undiscovered insight, which sparks a revolution in hearts and minds? A gorgeous execution that takes your breath away? It can be either, all or none. Personally, I think an idea is truly big if it resonates with people regardless of whom and where they are.

The P&G Olympics ‘Thank you Mum’ campaign is a perfect example. Who on earth has not felt such sentiment? Who has not marvelled at the selfless quality that binds mothers everywhere? P&G took this further with their depiction of different cultures, a choice that reflected not only the universality of the thought, but their own vast presence. Yet they didn’t need to; the idea itself was big enough, regardless of scale.

Then there are ideas that despite being based on a real insight fall flat – and here is one I have personally struggled with.

In Pakistan, milk as a category has remained elusive for decades; elusive to brands, that is. If you scan the category, past and present, you will find a veritable cornucopia of insights and ideas, ranging from hard-core functional (hygiene, health) to purely emotional (bonding, family, love, happy times) to that dreaded term, ‘aspirational’ (fairytale locales, glamorous stars) and beyond (think jingle, think Good Milk!). And yet, loose milk remains firmly entrenched as the market leader.

In an attempt to crack this category for a certain brand, we (the agency) conducted in-depth research (for the eighth time) among our target audience in a desperate attempt to find out what they actually wanted. We explored everything imaginable, from daily routines to rejected dreams and secret wishes. And then we stumbled upon it, purely by accident.

What do women want? To be men, of course! To escape the generic shackles of femalehood – and more specifically, the particular restraints of Pakistani femalehood – and have a chance at freedom, at being an individual beyond someone’s mum/wife/sister/daughter. In short, to be well-rounded human beings.

I tell you, I am rarely emotional but this was an epiphany guaranteed to melt even my frozen heart! We were certain that we had struck gold with this insight; all that remained was gathering the strands and forming the big idea.

And this is where we went horribly wrong. You see, instead of mining this poignant insight and arriving at a genuine premise, we diluted the thought to come up with something dull, safe and stale. Instead of telling women they were equal to men, we told them to be content with their lot. Instead of encouraging them to pursue where they wanted to be, we urged them to appreciate where they were. Rather than tap into their true aspirations – of doing more, being more – we settled for the hackneyed depiction of the perfect housewife who ‘celebrates womanhood’, by making the same tired, wholly domestic choices within the confines of her gender, as her sisters have done for centuries.

In this case, a potentially groundbreaking insight was lost in translation, distilled into a big idea that was not even original, much less challenging. The result was a feeble attempt at owning a positioning that didn’t even last two years.

The lesson? It takes much more than a fresh thought to create a real big idea. It’s what that thought leads to, that counts.

Sara Amjad Qureshi is a former strategy planner and Marketing Manager – Exams at The British Council.