by Mark Pollard


The debate about big ideas versus small ideas is dumb. It’s Fox News narrative re-framing applied to advertising. It’s a dubious act of political rhetoric that I’ve seen mostly deployed by digital agencies to make older agencies look their age; often the older agencies oblige. I’m tired of hearing it, and I’m tired of it nearly getting in the way of coming up with good stuff.

Do you know why it sometimes works?

Because the comparison is not about big ideas versus small ideas. It’s actually about a whole bunch of digital executional stuff versus a TV script.

In reality, there are only ideas and ‘some thoughts I’ve had’. There is only original thought and unoriginal thought. There are only ideas that work and ideas that don’t.

What’s an idea anyway?

Next time you hear someone use the big vs small idea rhetoric, nod politely then ask them what they think an idea is – preferably in front of the audience for whom the rhetoric was intended.

For an industry selling knowledge and thinking, I’m often amazed at how undeveloped our own understanding of what we do is – what a strategy is, what an insight is, what an idea is. Sure, plenty of people have trademarked frameworks and sound-bites that sound smart but when you ask them to not just define one of the basic words our industry operates by but to also give you an example of something they’ve done that brings it to life, often the definition that sounded smart doesn’t have a smart example to live through.

As a fan boy of Edward de Bono, the man who coined the phrase ‘lateral thinking’, I do appreciate his ideas on ideas. The easiest way to understand lateral thinking is to start with linear thinking. Linear thinking takes a topic and breaks it into its natural attributes – it follows one line of thinking (hence, linear).

Let’s take tennis. Tennis – tennis ball – tennis racquet – tennis court – Wimbledon – grass – Nadal – ball boys. And so on.

And let’s now throw in ballet. Ballet – ballerina – men in tights – Nutcracker – classical music.

Lateral thinking simply moves across the lines – from one side to the other – with the output being an idea, a novel concept.

Perhaps we should create a tennis ballet? What about a new tennis serve called the Nutcracker? What about men playing tennis in tights – perhaps it would help them jump higher? What about a classical music tennis tournament?

You could throw in another random topic like gorillas and crisscross all day, pushing out new ideas left, right and center.

Now, they wouldn’t all be good – as I’ve demonstrated – but they’d actually be ideas.

So, this is the definition of creativity that I’ve latched onto because I find it to be the most practical and least steeped in mystique: it’s the bringing together of things that don’t normally exist together in a way that makes better, more useful sense. An idea is the output of this act.

Feel free to disagree with me (or de Bono) on this but I keep coming back to this definition and find it useful.

For more on what ideas exist in the advertising world, read How to explain an idea.

How do you size up an idea?

So, if an idea is a novel concept that has brought things together in a way that hasn’t existed before and that is useful, how can one idea be bigger or smaller than the other?

Is it because the idea crisscrossed more attributes from more disconnected topics? Is a tennis ballet a smaller idea than a tennis tournament where we dress gorillas up like ballerinas and the tennis players have to ride the gorillas throughout the entire match while classical music plays?

Is it because a big idea is more useful than a small idea? To more people or to a few people? Was Facebook a big idea when it started or did it become one? Is it actually an idea based on the definition above?

This brings us to impact. Is an idea big or small based on the impact it has?Measured by what?

Is it sized based on the scale of the problem it solves? Is a small solution a big idea if the problem it was trying to address was massive?

Does a big idea costs more than a small idea? Is an idea big if it’s on TV and small if it isn’t?

Is it all of the above, some of the above or something else altogether?

In years past, I have absolutely used the phrase ‘big idea’ (“We need a big idea”) but am trying to put the phrase to bed. I believe it gets used mostly to prevent the speaker from having to say what she actually means: “I want some new, unexpected thinking – not just another TV script… although, yes, we’ll have to do TV – I just don’t want you to only think about that.”

If you want to know what makes an idea big or small, you’d be best asking the people who use this divisive bit of inception for their own definition. I don’t find it useful so I won’t even hazard a guess.

What the idea size debate is really about

OK. So, to the people employing this anti-phallic word war feeling high on their sense of iconoclasm, I agree with you. I need you to know that. Well, I agree with what you’re really saying.

And what you’re really saying is: “It’s time we got beyond thinking about making one TV spot that runs for months, possibly years, and create stuff frequently that keeps people aware, interested and buying from our clients.”

Simple. Who couldn’t agree with that? Do what works more often in a world where things change all the time.

So, where do we start?

I believe that planning in the creative industries is an act of creativity. I believe ideas (as defined above) should be in the strategy from the get-go.

Too often, planners appear part-client, part-account person – putting in obvious words, insights that are post-rationalized to make the committee they report back to feel good about their business. I don’t believe this is planning; it’s head-hours burning.

If you were working on the brand Baby Bjorn (baby carriers) and noticed, as I have first hand, how the world treats men who wears babies better (grandmas give you compliments, air stewards slip you free things they’re not supposed to, cafes give you bonus banana bread, people let you cut in line), how baby-carrying is the man’s job in many (not all) relationships and how many do it with pride reserved for very few things in their lives, how women physically respond to a baby-carrying man, if you’d read research about a certain type of male ape that carries its young around to show the other male apes they’re not worth messing with, and then tried to mesh these sorts of insights into brand or product truths, out will pop ideas. In the strategy.

So, if the man is either the buyer or researcher of Baby Bjorn, perhaps the brand decides to create a content-driven community and utility to help men extract extra benefits from the world – the inside track on new-dad perks: which companies ‘put out’, what you can get and how to make the plays.

Do you think someone could write an interesting TV ad off this? Do you think you could come up with witty video content at least once a month with this? What about a daily tweet? What about a weekly blog post? An event? A book? An app?

In the 5 minutes I’ve been thinking about this example, my answer to all of those questions is, ‘yes’. Again, I’m not saying the example is any good (I’m trying to have fun with it), but for the exercise, let’s now throw it into the big-idea-versus-small-idea debate.

Is the big idea in the strategy – to position Baby Bjorn as a new dad’s perk magnet (12 months of trick or treat every day)? What if the TV ad followed a man doing this around the world for 12 months to see what would happen? What if it was interesting enough to turn into a documentary? What if that documentary was then broken down into 10 really interesting 2-minute highlights? What if a community of men sharing their own perk-getting tips was built around the documentary? What if the community came together to literally trick-or-treat the world with their babies on – but for a charity in Africa (perhaps to collect school supplies)? Which one of these ideas is big and which one of these ideas is small?

Exactly. Wrong question. We should simply be asking, is any of this any good?

Why you shouldn’t limit your ideas

Firstly, if you’re a planner and you’re not putting ideas into strategies, I really don’t understand what your role as a planner in an agency is. If you’re just doing research, then call it so. If you’re really helping the marketing team with marketing plans, call it. If you’d have taken the above example and asked your teams to focus on how safe Baby Bjorn is or how well designed it is and left it at that then I don’t believe you’re doing planning. Thing is, that sort of planning seems to be the majority of our industry. I believe the role is supposed to be about the un-obvious made poetic and compelling.

Secondly, ideas (big and small) should be riddled into everything. A new twist, a new turn can be added to all executional elements – every TV spot, every blog headline, every re-Tweet.

Finally, you’d rarely ask for one idea from the creative process so why just put one idea into it? The more I do this job, the less I believe in the purity of one strategy: execution makes strategy live or die. Yes, there are planning books all over the place that are written with incredible hindsight, making the planner look sage-like, all-knowing. But I believe it’s simplistic to think there’s only one useful insight for a brand, that only one strategy can work. More rapid and earlier exploration of multiple strategies and creative ideas together is something worth exploring.


The big idea versus small idea debate is not worth having. It’s hung around for a few years now but I truly hope it disappears so we can focus on the power of great thinking – and making it happen as often as possible.