Every now and then someone in advertising announces The Big Idea is dead. The most recent announcement was only two weeks ago. From Tracey de Groose, the UK CEO of Dentsu Aegis.
2016, eh? Bowie. Rickman. Wogan. Corbett. Victoria Wood. Prince and The Big Idea.
But in 2012, the Global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi had already announced that The Big Idea was dead. In fact, its demise has been proclaimed five times in the last six years.
So has it died more than once or is it taking its time? Is The Big Idea faking it?
More puzzlingly, why do these voices want it dead?
Is it that they think the industry oughtn’t be seen pursuing such a goal? What will clients think? How will we explain what it is? Or is it that lots of smaller ideas are easier to sell than one of The Big Idea?
Or is it a fear of where will this end? If there’s The Big Idea, might there then be The Bigger Idea? Then The Biggest Idea? Because if you don’t control creative people with a ball park limit of the right size of idea, you know what they’re like. They get overexcited and you get
THE TOO BIG IDEA
For instance…..The most memorable example of The Too Big Idea in UK advertising came in 1987. Instead of doing ads, an advertising agency decided to buy a bank. Saatchi & Saatchi’s idea was bigger than an ad and an agency put together. The acquisition of the Midland, one of the UK’s Top Four Banks, later relaunched as HSBC. As an employee at their Croydon branch (the Midland, not Saatchis) I recall the trepidation on the counters and in the papers.
They tried to buy a bank. How would your agency try to branch out?
The world didn’t like it. Media and financial institutions sneered at the Saatchi bid as ad hubris. Who did they think they were? How could an advertising agency think of transforming itself with a venture in another sector. It was like changing species.
What would have come of it? Saatchis would have had no problem getting its ads for the bank approved as they owned it. So we would have seen a class of ad that we’d never seen before. And who knows we might have avoided that 2008 meltdown thing the banks laid on, when they were left to their own devices. You know, the thing that makes it hard for young people today to buy a house.
This aspiration to establishment, whether ironic or not, was always part of the Saatchi drive. When they started out in Golden Square, the brief to the smart designer who developed the classic Goudy Old Style identity was to make them look like a City law firm or a bank. In 1987, they hadn’t ditched the idea. In fact, they took it to the bank. The financial community got the fear and the world deemed it Too Big.
Briefed to make Saatchis look like a bank, Nick Darke devised the classic Saatchi & Saatchi identity in 1970 when hair could never be Too Big .
Who’s to say the financial community were right? Looked at one way, the 1987 Too Big Idea was an opportunity to create a completely new type of organisation. An ideas company with the wherewithal to fund and realise ideas as they please. An entrepreneurial outfit straddling sectors, marauding and disrupting. Is it ridiculous? Is it dangerous? Is it Google?
So this Too Big Idea from UK advertising was roundly told it was too big for its boots. Shareholders rejected the Saatchi bid. Get back in your box, Too Big Idea. In 1987, the world couldn’t deal with disruption on such a scale. Though you can’t help but admire the bravery, some might take a little persuading to bank all their dough with an ad agency.
IS THERE REAL ESTATE ON MARS?
The attempted Saatchi bank job is not the biggest Too Big Idea an adworld person has ever tried to get going. For that you have to go to Chicago. It’s December 1942. An advertising copywriter called James T. Mangan and his creative partner are discussing “stuff”. Mangan’s partner allegedly looked out of the window up to the dark sky and stated there was “plenty of stuff out there.” I don’t know if they were stoned or drunk. Anyway, James T Mangan allegedly replied “I wonder who owns it” and then he declared…
Yes, naturally, he declared outer space a nation. All of it. And then he declared himself Head of the Nation of Celestial Space. As ideas go, you don’t need a degree in rocket science to see it was probably too big at the time. However, there is always a certain industry pride in seeing an ad person thinking so freely and then trying so hard to make his Too Big Idea reality, not to mention trying to solve London’s property problem before it even had one.
Big Art Deco buildings are known to inspire creatives to Big Ideas. The idea to buy outer space was launched on the 43rd floor of the Chicago Board of Trade building.
Mangan drafted in a typographer friend to design his letter to 74 earthly states, requesting they recognise his space state. His outer space nation’s flag briefly flew in front of the UN building in New York. He later had official stamps, coins and passports designed. (The passports were sent to US AND Soviet astronauts when early space travel started to grant them safe and legal passage through Mangan’s territory.) He also tendered 42 earth-sized plots of space for sale at $1 each. Reasonable.
James T Mangan, the copywriter who tried to buy outer space. His #space nation flag has a strangely familiar look.
In one touching sentence, Mangan explained the idealism in his thinking.
“My nation might give people enough bigness of thinking, enough bigness of disdain to make them feel international squabbles are petty.”
He might be hinting this nuttiness was actually a publicity stunt to get earthlings to live more harmoniously than in the Cold War climate of the 1950s. Although he might also have been serious. In fact, I believe he was. Because Mangan seemingly specialised in The Too Big Idea.
WHAT’S ALL THIS GOT TO DO WITH WORDS?
Mangan’s biggest Too Big Idea was an altogether bigger deal than owning outer space. It’s possibly the biggest deal humans can do. The ownership of inner space. A contract between human conscious and subconscious. And (this is where we get back to words) Mangan attempted to do it through a coded language with which the conscious could give a brief to the subconscious for success in any situation. (Opportunity to try this for yourself alert.)
When you read Mangan’s explanations, they feel like a mix of mysticism, neuro-linguistic programming, the Law of Attraction, self help and con. His concept is Switch Words, a vocabulary of simplicity and strangeness, that allegedly the subconscious understands. It’s derived from Freud and expanded in his 1963 work A Design For Perfect Living.
Available in all strange bookshops since 1963.
At its simplest, you consciously define what you want to do, find the relevant switch word. Repeat the switch word regularly, (sometimes in conjunction with other switch words) then wait for your subconscious to realise your goal.
For instance, “to get in mood for writing” (Mangan’s definition), the word is GIGGLE (Mangan’s capitals.) Say GIGGLE over and over and start writing. (I haven’t tried this. After you.) “To meet a deadline” (I used this for writing this blog), the word to repeat is DONE (it worked with a day to spare).
Below are random pages from The Secret of Perfect Living (available today in all strange bookshops or on Amazon). If you want “to stay young and look young immediately”, “to banish lonesomeness” or “to dispel an attack of the blues”, Mangan might be your man.
Click “to get in mood for writing.”
Click “to dispel an attack of the blues.”
Finally, as an ad person, Mangan helpfully supplies his fellow industry professionals with a switch word of their own. If you are trying, in his quaint words to have ideas in order “to secure publicity”, the word you need to repeat is…..I am not making this up…..RIDICULOUS. RIDICULOUS. RIDICULOUS.
Keep saying RIDICULOUS and you might have a Big Idea that secures vast publicity for your clients. Except don’t forget what was reported in Campaign, The Big Idea is dead. Until they’re reporting The Big Idea is Back, why not, like the Saatchis or James T. Mangan, try a Too Big Idea while you’re waiting?