Rearview mirror

There are some good questions there on Andy Awards blog. They are all the usual suspects, but no matter — they are relevant for the industry, and that’s what counts.

First of them is “Do big ideas still matter?” This is the ad industry favorite. Everyone loves the big idea. They love it even more if its theirs. The whole current ad industry model, with its awards and “show me your portfolio”-type of expertise, is based on who had more good ideas in the past.

When we think about and give examples of big advertising ideas, we do that only after an idea had already become big (otherwise, we wouldn’t know about it — right?). In other words, we don’t know if something’s big until it, well, becomes big.

And then we treat it as a sufficient explanation for its success. For “Got Milk?” we say, “it resonated well with consumers”; for “Dove Evolution” we say “it tapped into needs of the target”; for “Do the Right Thing” we think “it’s a great summary of the experience”. If these big ideas have not — for some reason or another — become big, we would say “they missed the target”, “they projected the wrong image” or, “they don’t know their audience.”

The problem is, we don’t know any of this in advance. We simply don’t know why and how a campaign idea becomes big. An analysis of Ad Age’s“Top 15 Slogans of the Century” reveals that there isn’t a single rule: “Even an informal Internet study shows there is little agency agreement on what makes a great slogan. Just determining the essential ingredients is still a mystery.”

We also don’t know if an alternative to a proven big ideas (Dove Evolution, Got Milk, Do the Right Thing) might have been even bigger and better. Big ideas never have an alternative.

And then, we like to attribute brand and sales lifts to our campaigns, in a “before-and-after manner”. But simply because something happened in between before and after, do we have enough info to claim a causal relationship? Free coupon redemption may spike when we release free coupons as a part of the campaign (an example that an ECD of a big digital agency recently used as a “proof” of his campaign success) but free coupon redemption would spike anyway and at any time when free coupons are released. Can you attribute this occurrence to your campaign — or, to an already existing dynamic of people’s behavior?

Finally, we don’t have anything — any benchmark or a control group — to compare our big idea-based campaign to. How do we know that our campaign is not, in fact, a complete failure under a given circumstances? Just because there was some effect, this does not mean that we can label it as a success. Maybe that very same campaign, tweaked a bit, would actually get way more users interested?

The truth is, we could know all of this. A little testing and experimentation and monitoring could actually answer the question of why some ideas become big and others don’t. Why no one asks about that?

Originally published on November 9, 2009