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Do great brand ideas become shackled by advertising? Image courtesy of Darwin Bell

This my most recent column for New Media Age . In it I expand on the idea, that you will also find in the Battle of Big Thinking speech, that brand ideas now too big for advertising.

Oh by the way, should anyone suggest to you that brand ideas are not up to much or we are all suffering from the cult of the idea you might want to look up Dr Joe Plummer of the Advertising Research Foundation. I heard a sensational speech by him recently at WARC’s Advertising Research conference, this was inbetween wondering why there were no UK advertising agencies represented at a conference on advertising research (come on plannerkind, time to engage with our specialist subject).

Here is somebody actually trying to build a model to help us understand the value of engagement to brand demand, and doing it with a consortium of brands from the US Postal Service to P&G. Lo and behold if he doesn’t say the research indicates that “the most important part of engagement is the brand idea” – not the ad, not the widget, not interactivity, not Twiggy, not hours of UGC, but the brand idea. I feel I shall be returning to this topic in short order.

Rant over, enjoy article.


Big brand ideas are currently big news in marketing land. I mean really big brand ideas, not short-lived creative ideas that sparkle momentarily and then fizzle away as fast as they arrived. Nor one-dimensional advertising ideas that offer tactical responses to specific business issues. But whopping great ‘are you pleased to see me or is that a canoe in your pocket?’ brand ideas.
At their best these feel like the driving philosophy of the business rather than just the strategy for marketing communications. That’s how the Campaign for Real Beauty seems to me, as if it were the reason that Dove exists in the first place. The same goes for Honda’s Power of Dreams, Land Rover’s ‘Go Beyond’ idea, Vodafone’s belief in the power of now and Persil’s, much maligned, Dirt is Good philosophy.
And of course every Tom, Dick and Tarquin in the agency world thinks that they can muster a half decent idea when the opportunity arises. Well if this were the case I’d be able to quote rather more examples than this. Really big brand ideas are actually rather thin on the ground.
However, it is not the global shortage of quality ideas that concerns me most. It is the role that advertising plays in serving those ideas. In short, while a brand idea can never be too big, it may well be too big for advertising.
Advertising has always liked to see itself as the window onto the brand’s world. That’s what we mean by brand advertising – here is the whole of the brand in forty seconds. And that is why advertising is usually seen as the lead discipline – it’s the one that most succinctly sums up what the brand is all about.
That was fine when ideas were modest and adcentric, but really potent brand thoughts are often short-changed when forced into the format of an ad. More than this, the desire to communicate the entire brand experience can compromise advertising’s ambition to sell. This is the enduring criticism of the ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign -that the idea is far bigger than can be dramatised in an ad and attempts to do so have not converted into sales.
Maybe it is time to free advertising from the need to represent the entirety of the brand idea and recognise that other disciplines are capable of doing this in a richer and more rewarding way. In particular it is time to recognise that for many brands it is their online experience that should be delivering the big brand idea in all its technicolour glory. After all advertising, whether analogue or digital, is always sharper when it has latched onto a specific business problem rather than wafting around conjuring up beautiful brand worlds.
Of course the bad news for advertising agencies is the decline of the set piece ‘brand ad’ as the discipline gets back to the job of selling. Seeing advertising recast as the new below-the-line discipline is unlikely to be popular in Soho
However, the good news for advertising agencies is that few of the brand’s other business partners are capable of framing the big idea in the first place. And this remains the most serious challenge for stand-alone digital agencies in the era of the big brand idea.
Digital may be one of the very few marketing disciplines that can cope with the enormous bandwidth of today’s ideas, but unless those agencies have the intellectual and creative firepower to conceive of the idea in the first place they will struggle to usurp the traditional advertising agency as the primary brand partner.

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