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November 15, 2006
Sometimes the big idea is in the details

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of hearing about the proverbial "big idea." Or more specifically, what the "big idea" has come to mean to some people. To me, it’s a phrase that is as tired as an art director I used to work with years ago. The art director, who shall, of course, remain nameless, was one of these types who could pontificate about advertising philosophy from hell until breakfast. He could ramble on about why other people’s ideas were not "out of the box" or "fresh" or a myriad of other descriptors about why something had been done before or was not new enough. Ironically, all of these exchanges occurred within the walls of a place that was steeped in great work. Incredible design, elegant or smart writing, and, more than anything, a blue-collar approach to getting the work done. Show up early, hammer hard all day, and spend time hammering home nails and not one’s philosophy about how they are hammered.

If this art director had been an architect, he could have pondered forever about the importance of Frank Lloyd Wright, but give him the most ornate piece of crown molding and he wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the advertising business who allow themselves to fall into this trap from time to time, myself included. We get caught up in trying to reinvent what it is our clients hire us to do, and amidst all these attempts to come up with something BIG, the little things suffer. Things that are not really small whatsoever but some consider small compared to the big idea. We forget that at the end of the day, our job is to make consumers connect with brands. The basis of these connections is sometimes a big idea, but oftentimes if you look at these ideas, you can break them down into lots of great little things. The tools of our trade, if you will. Great type. Great photography. Great casting. Great writing. Great restraint. Great film. Great composition. Put them all together and good lord, you might just find yourself with a Great Big Idea. One born out of a keen understanding of all the not-so-small things that define each of our disciplines.

Look at the work of Janet Champ and Charlotte Moore. Specifically the awesome stuff they did for Nike Women. If they had told my old art director, "The big idea is we’re going to speak directly to women," he probably would’ve retorted, "That doesn’t sound big at all." But then look at the way they talked to women. The big idea was starting an ad with the mantra "Did you ever wish you were a boy?" Then another big idea was beautiful photography of a young girl holding a baseball glove. Then another big idea was using exquisite type to make copy that was already incredible connect with the reader in an even more powerful way. And the last big idea involved no call to action but signing off with a slight logo in the upper right hand corner. They didn’t wax poetic about the process of coming up with a big idea. They just did it, so to speak. And after they arrived at the big part of the idea, they made every one of its components just as excellent.

Of course this is not to say there aren’t really, really big ideas that happen from time to time, but oftentimes what helps them happen is the advent of something totally new. Like, say, a certain type of computer, an early version of the one I am typing on now in fact. But briefs for products that are destined to change the world don’t land on my desk every day, and I bet they don’t land on yours either. Most days the challenges creative people are faced with are trying to make products that are not considered brand-new or revolutionary connect or reconnect with consumers. Jobs that call upon us to think big but not so big that we forget about moving parts that make great work great. The kind of everyday tasks that require us to look at the big blueprint but never forget the crown molding.

But that is enough about that. I have some body copy to rewrite.

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With more than 20 years working in the advertising business, Dave Smith has written copy for BBDO, Hill Holliday, Boone Oakley and Ogilvy. His industry awards include Communication Arts, The One Show, and D&AD. Dave is now a freelance writer/creative director based in Nashville, TN. His website is davewordsmith.com
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