The end of the Big Idea?

Posted by on Aug 11, 2009 in Speeches | 14 Comments


Here (courtesy of Adage) is a nice little clip of me in NYC at the 4As Summer of Planning event explaining a little of why the idea of the Big Idea is really…well, NOT such a big thing to worry about anymore

Sure it's useful for agencies – and sure it's easier to manage complex organisations to produce and deliver against them – but frankly, in a world in which social influence reigns, it's less and less relevant. Do more stuff, place more bets, light more fires, give yourself more chances that one at least of your ideas takes off.

Who'd have thought it, eh?

Of course, charging for this is a whole other game….

PS The green walls are those of JWT's lovely bar area but the haircut is my own unfortunate choice.

Oh, and Flickr feeds for NYC and SF – thanks AAAA for having me!


  1. Tessy
    August 11, 2009

    The crumpled linen shirt and the haircut immediately made think of Hugh Laurie in ‘House’ …. obviously this is very cool indeed!

  2. guy
    August 11, 2009

    brilliant one

  3. giles rhys jones
    August 12, 2009

    bollocks – the fires, the stuff, the bets all need to ladder up to something otherwise it is just a bunch of unconnected activity…
    dr gregory herd. scary thought

  4. Mark Earls
    August 12, 2009

    Thanks, chaps for your considered responses 😉
    Giles (Btw – is that really you?) I beg to disagree.
    1. it might add up to something from the world’s point of view, but it’s unlikely to add up to precisely the thing you – or your client – want it to: it’s the folk out there who make the meaning. No amount of neat tidy agency-authored plans will change the messiness of the real world. Of course, if the actions of the brand are driven by a real sense of purpose and conviction that’s slightly difference but the fundamental point remains the same – it’s not what we do to people that counts; it’s what they do with our stuff and with each other.
    2. as we can’t tell ahead of time which things are going to take, having one big thing is always going to be riskier that than lots of small things which approach the problem in different ways. Of course, none of the ‘fires’ may take off but at least you’ve given yourself the best chance of having at least one that catches.
    Just to be clear, eh?

  5. HolyCow
    August 12, 2009

    Marko – good one – Nicely put too. Two things and a question:
    1) Lots of fires are surely the acceptance that we can’t predict the outcome of our ideas. Clients need to buy certainty. Some agencies over the years have been able to create culture through ideas and executions that work through great insight and great delivery better than others. And some over time have equally been able to do it consistently – John Webster springs to mind. So surely its not about accepting we ain’t that good – its about demanding more accountability and better work – not more stuff. How do you think we can do this more consistently?
    2) We cannot create lots of ideas – we struggle to do one let alone loads as you say. Surely what we need is a single focus of attention based on a product truth and a point of view – or attitude – what the product stands for – expressed as a generous idea that lends itself to being played with, shared and transacted. Thoughts?

  6. hugh de winton
    August 17, 2009

    completely agree, nice post.
    my only concern is the that these fires need to be seen as the start of the brand communication. The next stage is where the action really happens and the fire lighter then gets to converse with the individual based on reaction to said fires. the very definition of the word campaign seems to contradict this new way of thinking by imposing start and end dates – this could be the start of a new direction that go on and on, being constantly tweked by both parties, a kind of advertising in beta
    i just wrote a quick response to this at

  7. Mark Earls
    August 18, 2009

    Good points.
    1. Do clients really need certainty, or is it more about confidence that helps them buy? Part of the problem, I’d suggest is the way we frame the question – or allowing their worst advisers to: that prediction (particularly about the future) is inherently inaccurate.
    2. There are lots of ways to resolve this, depending on the organisation. I think this is where stuff like the brand-bollox I’ve frequently challenge comes into play – it makes it feel as if things are coherent. Even Granty’s molecule approach plays to the same agenda. I like your idea about a point of view v much but I think the product itself is really more grist to the mill – more opportunities to try stuff, to light fires (inspired partly by the good folk at Zeus Jones and the upcoming book by Alex Bogusky & John Winsor of Crispin Porter – Baked In).

  8. Mark Earls
    August 18, 2009

    Completely agree, Hugh. Think I said as much in NYC. The only thing I’d challenge you on your comment and your blogpost is this: the point is we’re not moving to a world of two-way conversation (between brand and consumer) but to the primacy of the consumer-consumer conversation (ie without us). It’s not that the “fire lighter gets to converse with the individual based on reaction to said fires…” but rather that the fire takes when individuals react to each others’ reactions to etc etc…
    We’ve really got to get used to not being the centre of the game.

  9. HolyCow
    August 18, 2009

    Mark in response to your points:
    1) They need certainty more than ever currently. Sheesh – I would hate to be a brand/marketing manager/director head of colored pencils right now wouldn’t you? Especially with influential people like you running around scaring me.
    Look, everyone needs to have confidence to buy from their agencies and agencies need to be more confident in their abilities to deliver. They need to hire better quality planners – not the mediocre dross floating around at the moment (btw just knowing a few things about SEO doesn’t make you a planner!!!) but people with a real understanding of human beings and how communications and other human beings actions actually work (Pollitt wasn’t so bad was he?). They also need better account men with bravado and nous like Frank and Bill and David. And they need to be able to measure the effects on sales of favorable interactions leading to preference. All this new thinking about ‘everything we know is wrong’ is fun but it ain’t helping anyone currently, so I say let’s stick to the stuff we do know and manage expectations. There, I seem to have answered my own question.
    2) Arguably lots of ‘brand bollox’ is nothing of the sort. It is coherent and well constructed. Howies & Johnny Walker spring to mind immediately. If I wasn’t watching Tom & Jerry whilst writing this I am sure I would immediately think of others. CPB and Zeus no doubt have it all figured out about building the marketing into the product etc etc but lighting lots of fires when all you need is a good platform to enable you to be very coherently complex is a better place to start. IMHO.

  10. hugh de winton
    August 19, 2009

    cheers mark
    Having a think about this, i think what you’re saying has strong parallels with what Roland Barthes was banging on about in ‘Death of an Author’ – recommend you check it out. True meaning / value is defined by the connections between the audience and not by what the author had to say. he went a little further and claimed we should ignore the author completely but the core sentiment is the same.
    jotted down a few thoughts here

  11. Mark Earls
    August 19, 2009

    Think that’s right, H. Thing is I don’t mention M. B around here – scares the horses…

  12. Promotional Products
    August 26, 2009

    I’ve been reading a lot about this topic lately and I think its not something that should be abandoned. We need to think small, but at the same time we can forget about the big picture.

  13. Anna Parker
    June 28, 2010

    We all love to be part of the wedding party until we find out we have to make a speech…

  14. nike air jordan
    April 27, 2011

    He liked to share his knowledge not by answering questions but by asking them.