In the not too distant past, creative agencies coined the term ‘the big idea’ as the Holy Grail solution to a client brief.

There’s no question that great creative concepts are worth their weight in gold, partly due to tighter than ever budgets. And I’ve worked with agencies over the years where fantastic amounts of resource were focused on coming up with the next big idea. 

Recently, I sat down with our Creative Director, Don Smith, who was previously employed by the legendary HHCL, and he guided me through the various reasons why, in his opinion, there really is no such thing as a big idea, only good ideas.

Good ideas have two characteristics:

  1. They are relevant in that they wholly answer the brief, they solve a problem or present additional value to the audience.
  2. Good ideas are, more often than not, unexpected. They are usually delivered in a way that is memorable and engaging, but beyond the obvious. 

Good ideas are more than just a concept. And they are achieved by combining experience with an idea that will answer a client brief while giving it the best possible chance of commercial success. 

The industry is changing

Don’s main point was what makes it a big idea anyway? Is it the ambition of the concept, the scale of the production or the hyperbolic difference between the proposition and it’s eventual expression?

Often, it just seems to be the jargon used to cover the fact that many creative directors cannot define a strong enough criteria for measuring the output of their teams or the validity of the creative concept to the client.

Clients are after results, not ideas. Any creative concept has to deliver on the objectives set in the brief. So if all you have is a big idea, but you can’t actually prove the delivery of results versus concept, how do you ensure your clients are getting what they’re after?

Build it from the ground up

So how do you maximise your chances of success by creating ideas that are still rooted in achieving end results? Both Don and I agreed that it’s all about selecting the right people, with a diverse skillset and sufficient differentiation in background, and get them around the table.

This will allow you and your team to look at the brief from a variety of angles and could even allow you to find an unexpected and but very relevant response to the brief.

Don’t just focus on creative, pull strategy and planning and your technical team into the mix too, right from the start. They are all creative people in their own right, and when you’re pitching to win you can’t underestimate the value they may add to your great idea.

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about sticking to the brief

Then you will need to take the creative ideas generated by your team and break them down to measurable units.

Will they meet the objectives? Will they motivate the audience? Will they provoke the necessary action or interaction? Will they stand out from the competitive set? (It's worth noting that it's almost impossible to find an idea that fits every requirement of the brief. And quite often a good idea can expose flaws in the brief. So it's important to have some flexibility, and be open minded to improvements at every stage in the process.)

At the end of the day I realised that there really is no big idea, it’s more the right idea combined with excellent delivery. An idea is as big as the results it achieves.

The key is to be transparent, make ideas simple, creative and challenging and, most importantly, make the results tangible. Or as Don says, look for the Relevant Unexpected. 


Published 19 October, 2011 by Rob McLeod

Rob McLeod is Head of Planning at Realise Digital and a guest blogger on Econsultancy. 

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Comments (5)


Dean Crutchfield

Robert/Don ~ enjoyed reading the piece and hold a lot of respect for HHCL. Its interesting to see how there's a lot of retweets, but no comments - everyone must agree. I don't.

Show me examples of "good ideas" that have reinvented companies, invented new categories and/or radically changed existing ones.

My opinion is that good ideas help foster coincidental growth, but radical new/big ideas can create big new growth and change the world.

My problem with the "Big Idea" is the naive sound of the phrase, but the intent is magic. So please share any thoughts on a new, succinct way to say it.

almost 7 years ago


Kate Bordwell

Does this come down to semantics? You say there is no 'big idea', but you instead talk about a 'great idea' and a 'right idea'.

I have seen this argument popping up a lot recently and I think it's a bit of a red herring. It's a digital backlash against traditional planning, because we are defining what planning in digital should be all about.

As you say, whatever we do should be a 'good idea', meet the brief and be fit for purpose. It needs to support and build the brand. It might be based on an insight, or insights...

Does it matter what it's called?

almost 7 years ago


Don Smith

Thanks for your comments guys. Kate I come from an Ad agency background and I assure you there's no backlash.
There are ideas that you could certainly call 'Big', our point is that there needs to be less ambiguity about your measurement of an idea. The 'Relevant Unexpected' notion is just one way to express a criteria for measuring creative ideas.
Before my HHCL days I was always frustrated at my CD's simply telling me an idea was good or bad, right or wrong, with very little explanation other than they knew best. Client's often felt the same.
Most agencies are sophisticated enough these days to better quantify their approach to clients and their briefs.

Dean, the word radical is a great one too. Jon Leach our planning Director at HHCL and one of the smartest men I've ever met used the term 'Professional Radical' to describe our approach in the later days of the company.
In fact we all had that as our job title's on our business cards.
It's another interesting standpoint on criteria for defining your approach.
You can read about it here;


almost 7 years ago



It's not what we call it, it's what paying clients call it.

And as long as clients pay for creative, they will more than likely expect something new/different/outstanding every time.

The challenge to me in conceiving big / good / new ideas lies in how you deal with this and manage expectations.

One approach might be to take inspiration from outside the environment in question by looking at other sectors, other parts of the world, other industries and so on (proactive). Or look at the competition (reactive) and do the opposite.

Interesting discussion. How is this applied to the creative pitch situation though, when you are being judged subjectively on your big idea?

almost 7 years ago


Kate Bordwell

Hi Don. I don't think the background is relevant (mine's also advertising) - but things are changing.

Because we now have the opportunity to build a brand in lots of different ways the temptation is to move away from a big core idea to take a more fragmented approach. This works well when there is coherent thinking behind it (i.e. John Grant's Molecular Brands or Gareth Kay's lots of little ideas.)

Surely we have to tie our work to something - a 'big idea', brand platform, whatever it's called?

Also Rene's point is very valid - try as I might to talk about platforms, etc. my clients still understand what we're doing as the 'big idea'.

almost 7 years ago

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