Big Ideas … and How to Get One

What's the toughest thing to do when writing ad copy? For all the great tips and tricks that can make an ad look slick, you'll fail if you don't have a "Big Idea" behind whatever you're writing.

Copywriting giant David Ogilvy put it like this:

"It takes a Big Idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product. Unless your advertising contains a Big Idea, it will pass like a ship in the night. I doubt if more than one campaign in a hundred contains a Big Idea."

I can tell you personally, every well-performing ad I've ever written has had a Big Idea at the core.

Likewise, of those that didn't work, it's usually been the lack of a Big Idea that I can blame.

Meanwhile, my friend Mike Palmer runs a copywriting group that generates massive fortunes with their ads.

What's his #1 hiring criteria for new writers? You guessed it. He looks for writers who can sense the "bigness" of an idea.

Nothing else, he says, is half as important.

So, okay then.

That leaves you asking … just how do you know a Big Idea when you see one? And tougher still, how do you get one when you really need it?

At Bootcamp, I talked a little about exactly that. Specifically, I hit on a couple of key points from two books I highly recommend you read.

The first is called "Imagine" by Jonah Lehrer. The second is Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From."

Both reveal some discoveries that should shock anybody in a "creative" profession (us included).

For one thing, say both sources, just about everything we know about how idea discovery is supposed to work … doesn't.

How could that be?

You might not know this, but what most of us learn about how to get ideas, especially in advertising, comes from one man.

His name was Alex F. Osborn.

In 1939, Osborn was working at the ad agency he helped create (Osborn was the "O" in the famous firm, BBDO).

He was frustrated with how long it took junior staff to come up with ideas, so he designed a kind of creative system for meetings.

"Brainstorming," he called it. As you well know, it was a hit. To this day, everybody does it. And most at least try to follow Osborn's rules.

I'm sure you've had the experience. Everybody files into a room with full coffee mugs and empty white board. Maybe there's a box of doughnuts.

After some chatter, the suggestions start coming. As many as possible, said Osborn. Aim for quantity. And don't shoot any ideas down, because that will inhibit the brainstormers.

After an hour or so, the white board is full and everybody leaves feeling validated and productive.

The Problem: It doesn't work.

At least, not according to the research. Take one of the studies reported by the sources I just mentioned.

In the study, three groups were given the same sets of problems to solve. But each of the three groups was given different instructions on how to solve them.

One group was just told to "talk it out." No rules, just the request to come up with solutions.

The second was told to stick to Osborn's method, especially the parts about free association of ideas and zero criticism.

The third was told to go ahead and criticize ideas as they come and to focus on quality.

What happened?

The first group had the least amount of ideas. The second? They did okay. But surprisingly, the most prolific was the third group.

What's more, the solutions they came up with — about how to help a city planner fix a traffic problem — were the most innovative, according to the experienced planners who looked over the solutions.

Here's something else. The next day, after a night of mulling over the ideas, it was the third group that came back in the morning with more ideas.

What's going on here?

At least one thing is that we have to reconsider the value of criticism during the process. And on the flip side, we may have to devalue the need to feel welcome and comfortable while brainstorming.

If you're a newbie, you may already know how tough it can be to work with critics, even good ones.

It's tough to labor your way through the invention of something, only to hand it off and have it pummeled before your eyes.

Yet, says the research, you'll get better ideas if you invite feedback and let it be a force to help shape your ideas. Even bad feedback has some value, because it can force you to develop your original position more clearly.

In short, it takes a lot of pressure to coax a masterpiece out of a block of raw marble.

One of the examples you'll hear a lot about, thanks to the two books I mentioned earlier, is Pixar.

Nobody can argue that they've mastered the Big Idea genre of animated kids movies. Their success rate at the box office crushes older studios.

What's their secret?

For one thing, they hold "crit" sessions every morning. Every day, the team heads into the screening room with bowls of cereal.

Then they sit and pick over all the details of the previous day’s footage, sometimes for up to three hours at a time.

"I remember talking for a half-hour about the way light was reflecting off the lights on Buzz Lightyear's wings," says one Pixar vet.

That wouldn't happen in a classic brainstorming session, because it's just too brutal.

But the payoff comes when you hit the movie theater with your kids … and view the polished result.

An essential truth from the history of innovation is this: great ideas have almost always had to start as lesser ones and then evolved toward greatness.

Are there still ways you can speed that evolution along? Absolutely, which is what Jen and I shared at Bootcamp.

John Forde has spent the last 20 years writing ad copy and has written and published his weekly e-letter, The Copywriter's Roundtable, since 2001.

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Published: October 29, 2012

2 Responses to “Big Ideas … and How to Get One”

  1. I enjoyed the article, John. Thanks!

    Sorry that I missed your presentation at Bootcamp 2012. But I'll listen to the recording when it arrives. Thanks again!

    RNin2013October 29, 2012 at 9:59 am

  2. I thought of more Big Ideas listening to yours and Jen's presentation at Bootcamp than I have in a long time. Inspiring ideas breed even more ideas. Thanks a ton.

    Steve RollerOctober 31, 2012 at 8:01 pm


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