News & Views

The New Good Old Big Idea / By Tom Beckman

by Contagious Contributor

You can resist an invading army; you cannot resist an idea whose time has come

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

The opening paragraph from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities describes our time pretty well. Society as we know it is facing extreme challenges in terms of economic crisis, social transformation and climate change. Some people describe the situation as The New Normal, referring to the lowered standard of living in the western world. And international surveys reveal a fast growing group of people believing that society actually will collapse during our lifetime. 

Still, we are witnessing tremendous progress, engagement and awareness. The relative number of wars and people living in poverty is declining. And we are seeing the rise of the East and of Africa, with Nigeria and Turkey among the world's fastest growing economies. 

What nobody can deny is the opportunities embedded in these transformations. There has never been a tougher yet more rewarding time to be in our industry. Never before have communication and public relations had more impact on business and on society as a whole. But equally important - never before has society as a whole had more impact on our industry.

From out-of-the-box to claiming reality

Last year in Cannes, Hill + Knowlton Strategies presented a study showing that more or less half of consumers worldwide prefer to buy products from companies that align with their views and values. Or in the words of Bill Taylor, co-founder fast company 'As the value proposition gets rewritten in industry after industry, its organizations with an authentic values proposition that rise above the chaos and connect with customers.'

If you believe Bill Taylor et al, the only reasonable conclusion is that the concept of positioning in the communications industry has changed from describing the relation to other brands to describing relation to the community. And possibly even more dramatic, if you believe Bill Taylor, we need to redefine the holy grail of advertising: The Big Idea.

Or maybe more accurately - reclaim the big idea. Because we have always been told to think big. To dream big. To have big ideas. But for some reason the meaning of "big" changed when applied to the advertising industry, and the idea of big ideas mysteriously transformed into the industry's primary business proposition: creativity. But big ideas, just like big dreams, are not about creativity - they are about acting on ambition. Big ideas are not about out-of-the-box thinking - they are about having the courage and the ability to define reality. 

The new breed of agencies

These new good old big ideas are much easier to find, in fact they are all around us for those of us who want to see them. They are basically all of the challenges society faces whether this be taboos, prejudices or inequalities. Or lack of joy for that instant. The choice of challenger brands should focus on is basically determined by two things - first the credibility and relevance of the brand to address it, and second by the trending of the topic. Or as Victor Hugo concluded 'You cannot resist an idea whose time has come.'

Nevertheless, these big ideas are much harder to act on. In fact, they require a new breed of agencies. Agencies that actually have an in-depth understanding of how all aspects of society work. To accomplish this, agencies must build competence within management, sustainability and societal affairs. This is hard. Crazy hard. Much harder than catching up on social media. But for those who succeed, the reward will be great. They will be the new breed. The ones that create thick value, not pretty stories. The ones that have gone from creating awareness that generates value, to creating value that generates awareness. You can see their work already crowding the shortlists.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.