What would David Ogilvy do? Part 2 – Why big ideas matter

A new series of Monday morning inspiration from an advertising genius

January 28, 2019

What Would David Ogilvy Do? Part 2 – Why big ideas matter

The biggest idea that advertising legend David Ogilvy ever had was about the importance of big ideas. It’s influenced every corner of marketing since he first set it down in the 1963 classic Ogilvy on Advertising – and not just because he expressed it with such a poetic turn of phrase.

Ogilvy’s warning that, “unless your advertising contains a big idea, it will pass like a ship in the night,” is a serious challenge to any marketer. It’s an argument for the ongoing value of creativity – and an admonition for anybody prepared to settle for me-too executions. And it’s as relevant to the world of social media and content marketing today, as it was to the world of print and TV ads that Ogilvy was considering when he wrote it.

Let’s be clear: Ogilvy had no time for grandiose advertising campaigns that distracted from the point of the product itself. One of his strongest convictions was that the purpose of advertising was to sell, and that creativity in advertising had to derive from the point of your product and service, and an understanding of the needs that it served. The essence of effective advertising was distilling these things into “a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product.”

Big ideas, as Ogilvy saw them, were authentic and credible – not big over-claims. They had to be so unique and so original that other creatives would be consumed with envy when they heard them. They had to fit the marketing strategy for the product or service to perfection. They had to be capable of being used, and resonating, for over 30 years. Because of all this, they were rare. In fact, that he claimed only to have come up with 20 in his entire life.

Big ideas may have been rare, but David Ogilvy knew where they came from. It started with careful research: firstly into the product that you were advertising, then into what competitors were doing, and finally into the audience, how they felt about the category, what they really needed and what type of promise they might respond to. However, insight alone didn’t produce the idea itself. “Big ideas come from the unconscious,” he wrote. “But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant.” Set down decades before the arrival of Artificial Intelligence (AI), that remains some of the wisest advice for marketers seeking to balance data and creativity.

Look back over the history of advertising and genuine big ideas still stick out to this day: Budweiser’s ‘Whassup’ campaign, Cadbury’s Gorilla, Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Epic Split for Volvo Trucks, Guinness surfers, Dumb Ways to Die. Each of these created the impact that Ogilvy demanded while condemning other marketing of the time to slip by on the dark side of audiences’ attention. People respond to big ideas because they express something they’ve never heard expressed before – but which is absolutely relevant to themselves and their lives.

The limited nature of human attention means that Ogilvy’s idea about big ideas is as relevant to B2B content marketing today, as it was to consumer advertising over half a century ago. Originality and unique value are still essential for commanding attention – and they still draw attention away from ideas that are smaller and less ambitious. If anything, the effect today is even more pronounced, with search engine algorithms and social media feeds reinforcing the visibility of content that changes the game. That could mean content that compels people to think in a way they haven’t thought before – that takes on established points of view, questions accepted wisdom, or responds to the news agenda with a fresh perspective. It could equally mean content that is so definitive and so authoritative that it sets the agenda for an industry through the wealth of experience and credibility that it can draw on.

Rather like David Ogilvy writing about Big Ideas in advertising, in fact.