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10 April 2007

What's the big idea?

Businesses should have a defining core idea, a purpose, an ideology, a raison d’être. There’s a lot of evidence to show that the ones that do out-perform the ones that don’t.

A central, governing vision is, at least in theory, useful for many forms of organisation. Political parties are supposedly held together by common ideals or aims which can be expressed as simple propositions (always likely to fall into one of two camps: being for change or resisting it and returning to older values). Countries regularly use the ‘Big Idea’ of patriotism to mobilise the masses.

The central concept of ideological empires like France or America after their revolutions was Freedom. For France this meant being directly opposed to a world based on aristocracy and feudalism. For Americans, it was the reason poor huddled masses, starved of liberty and desperate for democracy, flocked to the land of the free and the home of the brave in the first place.

The problem is, I keep hearing this phrase in meetings where agency creators and planners or client marketers are never talking about the principal idea of an organisation, one that directs everything from customer service standards to product design and informs all aspects of operations. What’s usually being discussed is a big communications or campaign idea: a single, monolithic message which can be smeared like pizza topping across multiple channel slices (TV, DM, print, outdoor, online, etc).

This is both superficial and outdated. The big communications idea is an artefact from the industrial, mass media age. When American newspaperman H.L. Mencken commented back in 1920 that the “freedom of the press is limited to those who own one”, he was referring to the then prohibitively expensive cost of mass market publishing. Yale law professor Yochai Benkler calculated that the capital required to launch a large circulation title skyrocketed from $10,000 to $2,500,000 in today’s money just fifteen years after the first such paper, The Herald, was founded by James Gordon Bennett in New York in 1835.

But new technologies and rising affluence (disposable incomes for UK and US households have risen five fold in the last sixty years) has changed consumers and the media they interact with. We’re no longer living in a mass media society where broadcast communications is the best way to reach large, homogenous blocks of passive recipients. Cultural ideas no longer come only from the elite few who can afford the expensive equipment and infrastructure to produce and distribute them.

That you don’t need to be Citizen Kane with a mansion full of cash to create and distribute information these days is hardly headline news. The fact that on the internet we can all be producers as well as consumers of media has been well documented. It’s also understood that a fragmentation of mainstream media is happening in parallel with the growing reach and influence of these individual voices online. According to P&G’s Chief Marketing Officer Jim Stengel, “In 1965, 80 percent of 18- to 49-year-olds in the U.S. could be reached with three 60-second TV spots. In 2002, it required 117 prime-time commercials to produce the same result.”

As a result, Big social, political or commercial organisations need to be many different things to many different people. The power of any ‘Big Ideas’ these organisations rest upon – whether superficial or fundamental – lie in their ability to serve a million different Small purposes effectively. Businesses don’t need ‘Big’ ideas so much as strong, core thoughts that have the elasticity to be stretched and molded by customers into an infinite variety of smaller shapes and sizes to fit their individual preferences. Perhaps we should be asking: what’s the Small Idea? Ideas tiny and configurable enough to exist in many different forms and places to suit many different needs.

Faith Popcorn recently predicted a couple of 2007 trends: “Identity Flux” and “Liquid Brands”. The first describes how experimentation with multiple roles online (game avatars, chat room aliases, etc) leads to a fluid sense of personal identity. The second describes how businesses need to constantly adapt to stay relevant for these ever-changing consumers. Brands from Saks Fifth Avenue to Pepsi are already being recruited into this new Cult of Dynamic Identities.

While in Henry Jenkins’ impressive “Convergence Culture”, a modern media idea is increasingly one which is designed to exist in many small, inter-connected parts. In a franchise like The Matrix, for instance, billboard ads in the background of a film reveal unlock codes for hidden levels of a computer game, and so on. Individuals aren’t supposed to catch all these references, prompts and sub-texts on their own. Only through fan communities, who themselves contribute a whole new layer of content and meaning via discussion groups, forums, blogs and social networks, can the audience collectively piece together the bigger story.

Perhaps there’s a simpler way to think about all this. As friends in a boutique New York agency put it, sometimes the big idea is to not forget all the little ideas along the way.


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Wow! What a provocative mind-opening series of ideas. For example, it would be great if US politicians would explain their ideas about the gynormous number of problems the next administration will face. (As in the mess Bush will leave behind.) They could stop speaking in banalities and using "sound bite" as an excuse. Instead get specific about different proposals appealing to different segments of the population. Bring it on!


A really great start cant wait for the full instalment.

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