Would You Recognize a Big Idea if it Slapped You in the Face?

david ogilvy on big ideas

David Ogilvy

Getting a big idea is like panning for gold in the river and discovering a shiny nugget.

But those moment of brilliance are pretty rare.

In his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, the legendary David Ogilvy said he had no more than 20 big ideas in his career. Yet he also believed that for an advertising campaign to be successful, a big idea was a necessity.

Most of us have no problem recognizing our own amazing ideas.

It’s pretty hard to miss that feeling of coming up with something new and exciting, the relief of finding the perfect solution to a problem or the joy of a creative breakthrough.

It’s a lot tougher to recognize a big idea from someone else.

Whether it comes from an employee, a coworker or your boss – the first thing we tend to do after hearing an idea that’s not our own is think about what’s wrong with it.

That could be a big mistake.

While vetting an idea should most certainly be part of the creative process, all too often good ideas get squelched by Negative Nancys before they ever see the light of day.

Ogilvy suggests asking yourself five questions to help you recognize a big idea. Of course, Ogilvy’s intent for these questions was discovering the best concepts for an ad campaign. But his questions can be easily used for any kind of idea – from new products to better customer service.

1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?

If it’s really a big idea – then it has to have that “wow-factor.” It needs to make your jaw drop – because big ideas are never boring.

Now, be careful! Extremely bad ideas can make you gasp too.

Big ideas will knock your socks off. The problem is that often means the idea could be controversial, extreme or expensive – and there’s a good chance it won’t be easy to pull off either.

Don’t turn down a good idea just because it forces you to leave your comfort zone. That is probably the very thing that makes it a good idea.

2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?

Jealousy. The green-eyed monster has gobbled up far too many big ideas. Or caused them to be flat-out stolen.

But a little bit of…let’s call it “idea-envy,” could certainly be a sign that you’re looking at a big one.

Many of the best creative ideas seem obvious in retrospect. They just make sense. That’s why we ask ourselves – “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Your first instinct might be to think about what you would have done if it were your idea. Instead of pointing out what’s wrong with the concept, try making suggestions that will improve the idea. Use your own ideas to support the original big idea – not to tear it down.

In Ogilvy on Advertising, the author quotes the founder of modern advertising, Albert Lasker. Here’s  Lasker’s answer to the question what is the best asset a man could have:

“Humility in the presence of a good idea.”

3. Is it unique?

They say there is nothing new under the sun.

While that’s a little depressing – it’s also probably true. Still, there are plenty of new ways to think about old things. That’s what creative thinking is all about – looking for connections you wouldn’t expect.

Originality is an essential part of every big idea. If it weren’t, it would just be a copycat concept. Big ideas may borrow from other ways of thinking, but there will always be a secret ingredient that makes it one-of-a-kind.

4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?

A good idea will always help you reach your end goal. In Ogilvy’s case – a good idea boosted sales and brand loyalty for his clients.

Sometimes a big idea is like the missing jigsaw puzzle piece you finally found under the couch cushion. It slides right into place and completes the picture.

I do think there are exceptions. Certain big ideas may force you to completely rethink and retool your strategy. However, your end goal will remain the same. The idea simply changed the way you’re going to get there.

5. Could it be used for 30 years?

The key here is the longevity of an idea. Does it have staying power?

Ogilvy points out that very few advertising campaigns last longer than five years. Those are the successful ones. But every now and then, an idea comes along that sticks for a very long time.

marlboro man ad campaignOgilvy cites what is still one of the most successful advertising ideas of all time – The Marlboro Man.

This campaign ran from 1954 to 1999. 55 years nearly doubles Ogilvy’s suggestion of lasting 30.

The intent of the Marlboro Man was to persuade men that smoking filtered cigarettes could still be masculine. At the time it was considered girly. But the campaign strategy also capitalized on specific emotions people could relate to. It created an icon that is now permanently ingrained in pop culture. What eventually took the Marlboro Man down was the decline in smoking as health concerns and crackdowns on tobacco ads grew. Otherwise – I’d be willing to be the Marlboro Man would still be lighting up in 2013.

A Bonus Tip from Leo Burnett

Leo Burnett is the advertising giant credited with dreaming up the Marlboro Man. His agency was also responsible for creating a variety of iconic advertising campaigns including memorable characters like the Jolly Green Giant, the Keebler Evles, and many of the Kellogg’s cereal characters.

Here’s his thought on handling big ideas in advertising:

“I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.”

That same logic can be applied to any type of idea.

If something makes you gasp, makes you a little jealous, is completely unique and fits your strategy – don’t mess with it!

When ideas get put in front of committees and management, they can eventually be beaten to death and watered down until they are nothing but a shell of the big ideas they once were.

Don’t let that happen with your small business advertising strategy or with any sort of idea.

Have the wisdom to know when to back away and let someone run with an idea – even if you really wish you were the one who thought of it.

Want a little help coming up with your own ideas? Check out our article – The 5 Steps You Need to Come Up With a Good Idea.

Kasey Steinbrinck is a co-founder of Copyjuice specializing in copywriting and content marketing. He loves helping people come up with ideas (maybe a little too much).


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    1. Hi Kasey,
      I’m a big fan of Ogilvy, but I think the problem most people have with great ideas is that they fail to understand these can also be very simple. Anyway, often execution is the most important step. Thanks for sharing with BizSugar!

      • Very good point, Heather. Simplicity really is part of many “big ideas” – I believe Ogilvy even writes about that various times. The best ideas are often the ones that are right under our noses, but we expect them to be complex, so we look in all the wrong places.

        Thanks for checking out the article!

    2. I think this Steve Jobs quote could apply to the theme of your article, “People often don’t know what they want until you give it to them.” So for example we often think that our ideas can never be BIG.

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