Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Mar-Apr 2015

Why big ideas need strong foundations

In their search for big ideas, brands and their agencies need to re-evaluate their approach.

In Pakistan we have a very ATL-oriented approach to marketing, which is not surprising given that the penetration for TV stands at approximately 80%. However, given that mobile phone penetration currently stands at 75% and that mobile internet is gaining traction (there are about five million 3G and 4G users and the projections are that this number will increase to eight million by the end of 2015), it would make sense if we were to stop applying traditional marketing techniques to digital, and more pertinently to this article, with respect to the big idea.

To understand why this approach is flawed we need to revisit how we arrive at a big idea in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, good big ideas are rarely the result of a stroke of luck; they are the result of a long process of insight generation which is distilled into a single concept (or phrase) that constitutes a big idea. The process starts with consumer research. Upon completion of the questionnaire, the results are gathered, organised and summarised, after which insights are extracted and put through several rounds of internal group discussions, the purpose being to refine these insights until they are distilled into an articulated big idea.

At this point, we begin to see why a re-evaluation of our marketing practices is important. Put simply, the method of big idea generation described above is very ATL-centric. Rather than constantly gathering insights from those consumers we engage with every day on digital platforms, we still opt for the ‘start and stop’ method of insight collection that we have been using for the past 20 years; a process that is too slow and cumbersome to be of any use in the digital world, where consumer needs change at a rapid pace.

Even more interesting is that the way we deploy big ideas is quite opposite to the method we use to create them. Think about it. After the long, drawn out process described above, our finalised big idea is used to create a rigid roadmap, consisting of as many sub-campaigns as required by the communication objectives. These are further broken down into smaller tactical executions, be it display advertising, social media, etc – all stemming from the big idea and executed based on carefully constructed calendars. And then once the campaign ends, the big idea is abandoned and the process begins anew. In short, the length of time that a big idea is used is not proportional to the amount of effort it takes to plan, research and construct it, to say nothing of the time and effort it takes to create the campaigns derived from it.

Some people may argue that developing campaigns based on new research enables us to meet the changing needs of our consumers. This again is a thought process derived from our ATL- oriented way of marketing. There is no reason why it should take the start of a new campaign to make us collect insights when every comment on a message board, Facebook page, or article may lead to a deep consumer truth or behaviour pattern that can be used as an insight for an existing or future campaign.

Furthermore, this habit of abandoning a big idea that has ‘run its course’ stops us from doing something very important – telling a cohesive story. Gone are the days when a campaign could get away by being vaguely related to another; consumers now demand more cohesion, not just between media, but also between messages. They want to be taken on a journey and this cannot be achieved if we keep changing destinations at every stop.

So what are the options? Do we stay the course and risk becoming irrelevant, do we get drastic and do away with the big idea concept – or do we decide to change the way we look at the big idea?

A quick search on Google on this topic will yield several articles that support the view that the big idea has run its course, and that short term executions are the future as they allow for more creativity and enable brands to take advantage of opportunities more fluidly. However, such views are not feasible for our purposes because the ground realities these articles are based on do not apply to the Pakistani market. In America and Europe, digital channels have penetrated deeply into societal structures and in some cases have overtaken TV as the main medium of information and entertainment. This is not true for Pakistan. Rather, we need to change our understanding of the big idea in order to find a middle ground between these two extremes.


There is no reason why it should take the start of a new campaign to make us collect insights when every comment on a message board, Facebook page, or article may lead to a deep consumer truth or behaviour pattern that can be used as an insight.


The big idea is still a useful concept as it provides creative direction, stopping us from being creative for the sake of just being creative. What must change is the long process of insight extraction and the habit of using big ideas on a campaign-to-campaign basis to achieve a communication objective and then discard it. Big ideas need to be used as a long term strategy to help achieve the larger business challenges.

A good example of this is Depaul UK’s ‘Don’t raise money, make money’ campaign. Depaul is a charity aimed at helping young homeless people. Depaul was facing difficulties raising money (business challenge), so they hit upon the idea of starting the Depaul Box Company which made cardboard boxes to sell to people who were moving home. The idea was to leverage the association between the homeless people who sleep in cardboard boxes with people who are moving home. The money generated from the sales of the cardboard boxes was then used to help homeless people – and as a result Depaul no longer had to solicit for funds to help the homeless. In this way Depaul moved from trying to solve a short term communication problem of convincing the public that homelessness was a cause worthy of their support, to actually solving the larger business challenge of creating a steady income stream for their charity.

Big ideas also need to have an inner flexibility to enable brands to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. The example here is Oreo. During the 2013 Super Bowl a power outage happened during a game and lasted for about 10 minutes. The Oreo social media team immediately got to work and started tweeting the message that ‘you can still dunk in the dark!’ A clever and effective way of leveraging Oreo’s big idea – the dunk – to cash in on an unexpected opportunity.

Changing this mindset is the responsibility of the communications industry as a whole. Clients need to be willing to relinquish some control over their brands and allow their agencies to take advantage of communication opportunities unencumbered by lengthy feedback times. They also need to allow agencies to experiment and test new ideas. Conversely, agencies need to convince clients that they can handle the extra accountability that more control brings; they must also provide a rationale for trying out new things and not do them just to be different. Only then will we be able to break away from our ATL-centric approach to marketing and better adapt to marketing in a digital age.

Jehangir Hansotia is Planning Executive, Lowe & Rauf. jehangir.hansotia@lowerauf.com