As David Ogilvy (aka “The Father of Advertising”) once said, “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.” PM360 wanted to know whether this notion of the “Big Idea” passed away with David Ogilvy and if we can get it back.

To find out, we asked marketers:

  • What does it takes to come up with a big idea?
  • How do you actually develop a big idea that will make your brand stand out in the crowd?
  • What steps are required for not only developing a big idea but also determining it will actually work?

Nick Capanear


If there were a formula, I’d share it. But there isn’t. And it ain’t easy. In fact, thinking up a big idea can seem like a monumental challenge. With lots of ways to attack it, here are a few that work for me.

Alan Moore in the book (and film) V for Vendetta wrote: “Beneath this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea…and ideas are bulletproof.” Clearly he’s never worked in advertising, but what he meant was that BIG, powerful, ideas exist not in cheeky headlines or high dynamic range (HDR) photography, but in people’s minds.

So make your ideas bulletproof. But how? If your idea crashes because your word play headline isn’t approvable or it burns because you can’t use that particular photo, then the idea was never big enough to begin with. Executional elements are just the vehicle for your idea. Think to yourself, “If I must alter the execution, does the idea live on?”

Here’s another bulletproof suggestion. I often hear marketers (agency folk, too) talk about “Stopping Power.” Does it stop me in my tracks? Well, forget “Stopping Power.” Instead, think “Staying Power.” It’s far more valuable for your brand. “Stopping Power” is the equivalent to downing a cherry-flavored Pixy Stick—it’s sweet and tasty but it’s over real quick and you’ll probably have forgotten it minutes later. But “Staying Power” is like a Martin Scorsese film—you could watch over and over and never get bored. You want that kind of engagement for your brand. Don’t make your brand a Pixy Stick. Keep your ideas BIG and bulletproof.

Kaye Kugler


Big ideas often begin with a problem that needs to be solved. In preparing to launch a new prescription medication for ulcerative colitis (UC), a very crowded marketplace, it was important for me and my team as marketers to understand the current market landscape and identify what patients need in order to properly position our new product.

To create an effective patient campaign, we obtained customer feedback—a crucial part of the idea generating process. We conducted several patient advisory boards to understand what the patients’ current needs were and where they got information about new products in the UC market. Based on their feedback, we created our next big idea for our new product: The UC/I See campaign—a simple, but memorable and relatable campaign that quickly resonated with UC patients. The primary concern of patients with UC is usually where the nearest bathroom is, which prevents them from enjoying every day experiences such as going to the movies. This led us to the idea of creating a series of images and headlines in everyday situations. For example, one of our headlines was “UC a couple out for the evening. I see myself seeing the end of the movie.” This was accompanied by an image of a young couple enjoying their time together inside a movie theater. We also launched this new campaign in areas frequented by UC patients.

Where we advertised, patients took action. We saw above average click through rates and outstanding sales results. Several months after launch, we also talked with our front-line employees—our pharmaceutical sales representatives—because we wanted to figure out how to give patients more of what they need. They told us that they liked our product, but needed better access, so we made our product more affordable. This modification improved our patient reach and increased our sales numbers. As the year progressed, we continued to evolve. We modified our key messages so they were even more relevant and we optimized our marketing efforts. The key to our success was listening to our customers and taking action. Because we listened to them, they listened to us.

Forrest King


First and foremost, and with no exceptions, to come up with a big idea you will need an extremely focused strategy. It is impossible to generate something that reaches the sweet spot without first knowing exactly what the target is.

Iterations and serendipity are not allowed in the creative process. Most of the thinking time is shortened in favor of production time, execution time or internal client demands. It is odd that the core idea or the big idea is most often allowed the least attention in the process.

Conversely, if you allow too much dead time, a project can become stale. In many cases, the quest for the “spectacular” actually blinds the players to early ideas that aren’t presented on the side of a blimp. Simple ideas with clear insights are often overlooked making the assignment too hard.

You can hear everyone in the room thinking, “It can’t be that simple can it? I’ve been working so hard for so long on my research, insights and segmentation and all it comes down to is three or five words. This can’t be right. I must need another round of concepts because I’m not blown away.”

Michael McLinden


The most critical component of a big idea is a strong, focused objective. I say this for two reasons. The first is that the right objective tells you what a win will look like. A “Big Idea” is big because it nails the objective. The second is an attentiveness to the critical details and small insights that will drive your creative conclusion.

In a great meal, it’s the interplay between a few key flavors that defines the experience, not the entire spice rack. It’s the same with a creative concept. You need to identify those couple of key “hooks” that will form the core of your idea and keep turning them around until they combine to reveal something totally new and unexpected.

Stand Out in the Right Crowd

When trying to come up with a big idea, don’t ask yourself how to stand out in the crowd. The more important question is how to stand out with the right crowd for the right reasons. This is often less a matter of what you say or show than the context in which you say or show it. The right context is the one where your big idea is the obvious answer for the people who encounter it there.

Contexts can be physical space—a page in an airline magazine, a billboard in Times Square or a banner on But the important contexts are also emotional, intellectual or cultural spaces—popping up in the right conversations, associating with the right people, being compared to the right competition. This is the role of the pub plans, thought leader programs, advocacy engagement, social media and other forms of market conditioning that are as critical to the success of the Big Idea as the Big Idea is to the success of the brand.

Eric Pilkington


Great ideas seldom, if ever, come on command. Most ideas take time to evolve; they need to incubate. Often, it isn’t until the idea has had years to mature that it becomes accessible and useful to us in some way (think about Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web, which took 10 years to develop and to this day, continues to evolve). Good ideas come from the collision between smaller ideas that form into something bigger.

Ideas often need to be built, layer by layer. Doing this often results in ideas that are bigger and truly aimed at solving complex yet, many times, common problems. To do this effectively, collaboration is key. Take advantage of technology and the connectivity it affords us. Reach out and share ideas with other people and borrow ideas from others. Weave ideas together to turn them into something new (i.e., Apple’s development of iTunes and the iPhone). Don’t be afraid to connect and partner with others who have the missing piece(s) that complete or improve your idea. More often than not, I find, this is where great ideas come from.

Great ideas and innovations can come from executing your idea differently than others have done. A great way to do this is to look outside of your industry to see how others are solving problems. Approaches that others consider to be routine might be extraordinary to you, and this can often become inspiration for new ideas.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to challenge your own ideas. Test your ideas and hypotheses, invite others to break them down or try to make them invalid. Most good ideas can stand up to any test. If yours can, then chances are you’re onto something big.

Chet Moss


It’s likely we all have some idea of what a big idea is. A focus group of Paleolithic troglodytes responded that the three biggest ideas of their age were the wheel (53%), fire (38%) and cashmere socks (6%). Three percent were too busy crunching on a mastodon to talk with the moderator. Today, some 21,000 years later, those very same respondents offered up these as their big idea: iPhone (61%), E-ZPass (32%) and seedless watermelon (7%). It’s clear that tastes have changed, especially the taste for mastodon.

What this essentially tells us about a big idea is that it has a particular relevance for people’s lives. It provides an extraordinary and original opportunity for change. It solves a problem or addresses some essential human aspiration with such scope, such innovation, such insight that directly speaks to the head, heart and hand of a customer. It practically demands that they view their miniaturized, 3D, on-demand, nanotech, crowd-sourced, supercharged world differently, and emotionally engage with it in just as novel a manner. Bottom line: A legitimately big idea matters in a big way to people. Fire gave our cavemen and women warmth, light and protection. The wheel gave our predecessors mobility, liberation and a chance to get over to the next guy’s fire really quickly.

An agency thinking imaginatively, creating anticipatory and participatory work that says to a customer in the most human, genuine way, “I know you, I get you, I have something so tuned in to you,” will provide a big idea that adman George Lois once said, “sears it into someone’s mind.”

And that’s how you light someone’s fire.


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