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Read Time: 12 Minutes

Two things have prompted me to have a type:

Firstly the passing of Nick Kamen, 1980s cultural landmark, icon and star of BBHs remarkable Levi’s 501s campaign. My threadbare 501s were welded to me for YEARS, and life was GOOD in them, and not just because BBH told me it would be.

Secondly, a recent client’s abject abandonment of a great creative idea in favour of something more anodyne. This had led me to ponder a little on what makes a creative idea big – and, in turn, what it means for an ambitious creative idea to succeed, ether in whole or in part.

So, let’s start with the obvious. What is a ‘big’ creative idea when it’s at home?’

There was a time when that was an easy question to answer.

Big Creative ideas smacked a little of madness – an audacious ambition wrapped up in a slightly megalomaniacal belief in possibility, all stuffed through the multi-million dollar mincer of creative chutzpah and craft obsession. Big creative ideas took cojones to create, to buy and to run. They weren’t simply the outputs of a smart collaborative team. There was a legendary status ascribed to big creative ideas and their creators.

There was a time when big creative ideas were seemingly forged in the fires of myth, rendered in gold and then scattered like diamonds across the arid deserts of our ordinary everyday lives. A time when Ad men and Ad women wore Sex Panther, and had highly inappropriate impromptu TV production meetings in the hedge at the Hurlingham Club on a hot summer Awards night. A time when a long lunch could reach across three dawns. A time when you didn’t fuck with big creative ideas.  A time when creative hot shops were on fire even though some may have sounded somewhat like a collision between a Victorian legal firm and a minor sex offence.

Much was made of the slightly unsavoury emollient nature of the Persuaders inside the Hot Shops’ doors with their dark arts of Madison Avenue. But, for all that, the creative work the hot shops and better agencies generated was memorable, often exceptional. Their presence on poster sites, newspaper ads, television sets and cinema screens made the world a richer, funnier and more interesting place. Saying that, not everyone appreciated the new, slick, bold and confident nature of the creative industry. 

Just a bunch of slippery market stall wide boys selling fizzy drinks and jeans to poor unsuspecting idiots.

Perhaps, but if the aforementioned Levis 501s campaign and Tango are anything to go by, slide on McDuff.

Add to that the likes of Honda Cog, John West Salmon Fisherman, Carousel, Sony Balls, John Smiths, KFC FCK and the myriad other big creative ideas that leap to mind, and why wouldn’t you give the creative folks your cash in search of a big idea?

Was their fetishization of gongs and plaudits, gathered up every year in the discarded clothing of the TV Department, deeply narcissistic and unsavoury? Perhaps. 

Awarded work was the only trumpet to be blown. Over the glory years of D&AD pencils, Cannes Lions, Creative Circle awards and various others, the industry revelled in its ability to use ground-breaking creative work to make their clients’ brands famous and echo through culture.

Everything was seemingly perfect and exceptional and single-minded creativity was revered and defended.

The downside [if there was one] was the agency people’s tendency to turn up for meetings in a car worth as much as the marketing director’s house, accompanied by a rather over-engineered sense of their own fabulousness. 

‘We’re the best part of their dull day job. ’Coming to the agency is like an outing for them’.

Even when said marketing director realised that the Ad people’s magazine-lifestyle of smart restaurants, endless bubbles, Cannes trips and Tony Montana-sized heaps of cocagne was being paid for by them, still, the value of and reverence for great creative work was upheld. As with every other cod trope about putting up with the difficult genius, the world still allowed for the minds that might make something exceptional.

But as the world turned a new dawn of democratic creativity arose. Creativity was reframed. ‘Everyone is creative’ – and ‘great creative ideas come from anyone and anywhere.’

This new egalitarian creative dawn, fuelled by the post-it-note frenzy and white-board abandonment of tech fuelled innovation sprints and hacks, seemed to diminish the pure dream of the big creative idea. It visibly shrank in the room. Suddenly, real world-changing Creativity was super-processor shaped and lived in Silicon Valley. This creativity was not only shinier and sexier – it was worth a jaw-dropping amount more money for its priests and advocates. And the fractal screenage media world that came with it didn’t help matters. 

When you can shade every channel to the immediate audience and a brand must speak in segment tongues you are in effect viewing everything through a sieve.

Where once a single killer TV or Cinema spot could knock itself and its audience out of the park, said idea now needed to be capable of the creative equivalent of channel parkour – leaping from blog to vlog to App to platform to paid social to podcast to Youtube to PR event to TV. 

All too often, in this environment, the value of a big creative idea is quickly diminished – suffocated by too much channel complexity, over-bearing and ill-conceived metrics – leading to a slow though rather intelligent death by democratic contribution. Not always – but increasingly nonetheless. It takes nerves of steel and endless patience to keep it on the rails.

But is that such a bad thing you might ask? Doesn’t that just test the mettle of the idea even more – a sort of Iron Man endurance test for creative thinking? Good point.

There are also many who dismiss the search for the ‘big creative idea’ because they look back at the golden age of them and simply see self-interest and sophistry. What’s more the purpose of big creative ideas if there was one, is perceived as rooted in endless and infinite growth and gain.

‘Come to think of it’ they say, ‘Big creative ideas lacked real integrity because they were used to persuade people to buy shite they never needed while making them feel like enough was never enough’ 

OK – again, fair-dos. The gold mine of unfettered consumption, feckless social engineering and the waxy, bloated god of endless growth throned inside a Super-Size model of excessive corporate greed may well have underwritten the whole cult of big creative idea advertising BUT that don’t make them less valuable M’lud.

In that small slightly defensive truth lies the point.

There will always be a value in reaching for a big creative idea – even when some people are calling them anachronistic – others saying they’re not fit for purpose any more – and more still decrying their seeming indifference to robust data measurement and research.

Even when the budget has shrunk, and the joy has been suffocated in its sleep, the deadline looming and the client exercising their dick-ness or insecurity or both – don’t stop reaching for a big creative idea, because even if you don’t quite reach it or you do and they don’t run it, the sheer act of reaching for it will create a positive impact in the world. 

Now to be clear here, there is a very clear line that divides the messianic pursuits of creative ambition and the sociopathy of misguided creativity, inappropriately applied.

Seeing an opportunity for a Platinum Lion in a single social post hashtag for Leclerc supermarkets on Insta and burning the ferocious gem-like-flame of creativity in pursuit of it is simply madness. We are only talking here about situations where a big creative idea might be fit for purpose – where a client has said ‘We’re up against the big guns here. We’ve got to really stand out. Cut through. We need a big brand story, a brand idea that gets us noticed.

Having recently created an idea rthat delivered way beyond the particular client’s ambition – an idea that may well have set a new optic through which to view their world and their proposition – to watch if get fleeced out and side-lined through a mixture of bad timing, over thinking, cold feet and an overly-rushed need for a website led me to contemplating the idea of what it means for a big creative idea to ‘land’ and ultimately succeed or fail.

Does the fact that the bigger idea wasn’t taken up mean that it failed? 

Does it make the desire to keep on seeking a bigger creative idea or play-space a rather nihilistic exercise fuelled only by ego? 

What does it mean for creative ideas to succeed? 

Must they always do it in totality? 

How much tenure does a creative idea need to have to impact and shape something good both within and without a business or brand? 

Lots of questions then. Any answers? Dunno. But here’s a thought hidden inside an observation. 

What I did notice in the new stripped-back vanilla version of the client’s website was a phrase – one of the original phrases I’d written as part of the creative idea. Now, if that phrase goes forwards and upwards into their business and brand vernacular – and shades and shapes how they think of and apply their IP and proposition in the world over time – in turn reshaping and transforming their clients’ worlds’ to even a small degree – then all is not lost. 

Do the businesses and brands who have a tendency to not convert the big idea but flourish from the ideas that fall out of the process of chasing it realise what they are doing when they magpie creativity along the way? Usually. Especially if some nominal sums have been exchanged for the thinking. But in a world where they’ve been taught to honour the whole idea or nothing, not buying it allows them to not recognise the influence of the creative exercise on their thinking and doing.

The evidence of various pieces of creative shrapnel embedded in a clients’ thinking, echoes of the big ideas that have been blown-up along the way, are not that hard to find. Their role in influencing the client’s proposition and trajectory are, equally, often plain to see. 

To be clear, I’m not referring to that really crappy behaviour that we’ve all come across in our time – that of running a pitch and then ‘scraping’ the pitch works, taking what you like from across the work yet not recognising any of it. That’s just plain old opportunistic theft of others IP and creativity.

No, I’m talking about when ideas and thoughts and strategies shared along the way, openly and in good faith, to the point they become shared perspectives and therefore part of the commons – at which point they are adopted as part of the client’s new dawn with no real appreciation or recognition of where those ideas came from. 

My point?

These pieces of creative shrapnel embedded in a client’s thinking and doing are proof of the fact that it is never a waste of time to go for a bigger creative idea and ambition, even in the absence of gongs, fat cheques or even client appreciation. 

The unreasonable power of creativity needs to be unleashed in the world at every opportunity. 

Is this a desperate re-rationalisation of what it means for a creative idea to succeed, just to make me feel better – a last ditch effort to stop it feeling like an utter waste of time and energy? Perhaps. Quite possibly. But not necessarily.