Ogilvy vs. Godin: Is The Big Idea In Advertising Dead?

Is the concept of the Big Idea dead in advertising? How much has the internet and Web 2.0 specifically altered the fundamentals of the industry? In his 1983 book, On Advertising, master David Ogilvy held forth on the central tenet to sell products:

"You can do homework from now until doomsday, but you will never win fame and fortune unless you also invent big ideas. It takes a big idea to attract the attention of consumers and get them to buy your product...Research can't help you much, because it cannot predict the cumulative value of an idea, and no idea is big unless it will work for thirty years" (emphasis by the author, page 16).

And yet, almost the very same day as I read this from Ogilvy, I find myself almost stunned off the treadmill as new master Seth Godin holds forth on the big idea in the third disk of his audio book, Meatball Sundae:

"There's a difference between a big idea that comes from a product or service, and a big idea that comes from the world of advertising. The secret of big-time advertising during the 60s and 70s was the big idea...Big ideas in advertising worked great when advertising was in charge. With a limited amount of spectrum and a lot of hungry consumers, the stage was set to put on a show. And the better the show, the bigger the punchline, the more profit could be made. Today, the advertiser's big idea doesn't travel very well. Instead, the idea must be embedded into the experience of the product, itself. Once again, what we used to think of as advertising or marketing is pushed deeper into the organization. Yes, there are big ideas. They're just not advertising-based" (disk 3, minute 48).

Of course, we should probably define a "big idea." As explained, a big idea is an advertising tool to sell products. It stands the test of time. It originates with the company and is distributed far and wide. It is inextricably linked to the product and the experience of the product.

In my mind, big ideas include cut-out coupons. By-mail Sears catalogs and mail-in rebates. Tony the Tiger and the Trix Rabbit. Toys in cereal boxes that had kids begging Mom to pick that one! (Why cereal innovation is on my mind this morning, I have no idea.) Shopping malls. Radio jingles. Anything that fundamentally affected people's decision about whether to buy a certain product or not.

So where do I stand?

I side with Ogilvy. The big idea isn't dead - in fact, it can only be expanded. I don't see Tony the Tiger disappearing from the hills of Grand Rapids. In fact, I would be disappointed if there wasn't a new way to interact with Tony. I want his roar as my ringtone. I expect to see him at Club Penguin.

None of this has changed - the ways companies persuade, coax, cajole, argue, and convince us to buy their products - except for Godin's point about the ideas being provided solely by the company. Of course consumers have more opportunity to interact and suggest to a company and the wise companies listen.

But for Godin to claim that the experience of the product is only now linked to the big idea is folly. Mothers bought a particular type of margarine because of the coupon. We chose Honey Smacks cereal because of the colors, the kinetic energy in the commercials, and the cute, cracked-out frog mascot (again, with the cereal...).

The big idea has always been linked with the experience of the product because the experience has often been more important than the product itself! This is nothing new.

The internet and Web 2.0 only give us more opportunity to riff on that. Big ideas may not have to originate with a company, but they will still likely need to flow from or be enacted by the company. Maybe the new importance in advertising is not creating the big idea, but being wise enough to hear it when it is whispered from the crowd.