Why we still need the big idea and how to get there

Ditching the creative foundation in favor of metrics? Think again, says Quigley-Simpson VP.

This summer, the articles began to pile up: articles decrying the era of the "big idea" is dead, articles declaring that Cannes is now a menagerie of adtech and data companies peddling programmatic tactics. And, of course, holding company behemoth Publicis pledging to take a year off from spending money on creative award entries—essentially big ideas—altogether. 

I’m not buying it.

Does that mean we need to dispense with smart tactics, analytics, optimization, ROI and KPIs? Absolutely not.

But I do strongly believe that this constant pendulum swing between the two only hurts us as an industry. News flash–you actually can do both. You can have a through-line, big, buzz-worthy, brag-worthy campaign that still gets heads in beds and butts in seats and is measurable. 

Why? Four reasons: excitement, engagement, inspiration and recruitment/retention. Big ideas, when executed well, excite your client, the marketplace, your employees and potential clients. Big ideas create multiple layers of engagement, not just with the brand’s customers, but also with your all-important staff. 

Taking that a step further, big ideas inspire future work, both among clients who may be somewhat risk-averse, among aspiring employees and among clients on the hunt for a new agency. Lastly, successfully executed big ideas are great recruitment and retention tools. Who doesn’t want to work for the agency with the campaign that’s not only wildly successfully but also has everyone talking about it? 

The only real issue is, big ideas are much easier said than done. But there are a few simple that can help you get there.


For years, there has been much outcry for the end of the brainstorm. It’s a forcing function that rarely, if ever, produces the desired results. Think about it. You schedule eight people to a meeting days or weeks in advance, order some refreshments and at the appointed time, each person, like a robot, is supposed to bring a bucketload of big ideas to the table. 

Wrong. Instead, try "brainwriting," which encourages everyone to collaborate on paper first. It removes a great deal of the anxiety of shouting out random thoughts and levels the playing field between introverts and extroverts. 

The Zero Draft

Another effective tool is the "the zero draft." Think of it like stream of consciousness on paper. The similar advantage is that it removes the apprehension that your freeform ideas may be judged by others (or even your boss). It’s also meant to happen quickly so that no one is consciously editing (and thus potentially watering down) the very big ideas you seek.


The idea is very simple – write sentences beginning with "I wish..." or "Wouldn't it be nice if..." that free you from the realm of possibility into the realm of the not-yet-done—which is exactly where you want to be. Just the simple act of altering the framing of sentences can break the conversation free and bring your groupthink into a much better place.

Finding those big ideas within the four walls of a meeting room is, of course, only one path. Get out of the office and talk to people. A lot. The more diverse, the better. The more separate they are from the task at hand, the better. Different job functions and different backgrounds often uncover the best and most useful anecdotes and possible use cases. Pitch your half-baked ideas around the office. Limit your pitch to two lines (if you have to explain it more than that, it’s a terrible idea). See how many holes people can poke in the ideas. If someone asks "why" or "wait, say that one more time," throw it out.

You can and will get to the tactics, the analytics, the optimization, the measurement of success and the ROI. Just don’t forget to start with a solid big idea. It’s no less important today than it was at the beginning of the summer.

Russ Cohn is VP Creative Marketing & Innovation at Quigley-Simpson.

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