Great ideas are key to progress

Time to invest in a dose of original thinking

As I write this, Alan Mulally, ceo of the Ford Motor Company, is somewhere between Detroit and Washington DC driving a Ford hybrid. Once he arrives on Capitol Hill, he and his fellow “big three” US carmaker ceos will make a last ditch attempt to save their companies, with a $25bn (£16.8bn) begging bowl.

It didn’t have to be like this. The American car industry was built on brilliant ideas and great design, from the first mass-produced car to the dream-infused tail fins of the 1950s. It was an exciting, glamorous and, above all, rock solid business. The last few decades, however, have been anything but. The “big three” have buried their heads in the sand, ignored all need to innovate and played to the lowest common denominators of both the technological spectrum and the public’s tastes. While the rest of the world’s manufacturers wrestled with fuel economy, the environment and cutting-edge electronics, Detroit continued to churn out thirsty anachronisms, shying away from anything resembling a new thought.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that progress depends on great ideas, not great big attention seeking lumps of more-of-the-same or, indeed, the prosaic products of over-cautious committees. It’s a lesson the marketing and advertising world would do well to heed.

I’m sure I’m not alone in my frustration at the following scenario: a client announces that he or she wants a big idea – something different, to cut through, get the brand noticed and people talking. You know, like the Cadbury gorilla. The creative department slinks off with this brief, and returns with something genuinely exciting; whereupon the client either rejects it for being too risky, or frowns, takes it away and dilutes it, before adding random, superfluous additions from at least ten other people. Then, once it has become unrecognisably bland or utterly confusing, this poor relation of the original concept is delivered. Weeks later, its failure confirmed, the client returns to your office, puzzled, upset and asking what went wrong.

I can’t imagine for a second that the likes of Ford, GM and Chrysler have been oblivious to the innovation happening elsewhere in the car industry, but when it comes to their own work they’ve somehow managed to ignore it. The same is true of many brand managers. Faced with unequivocal evidence to support the power of bold, simple, relevant ideas, most still manage to plump for bewildering, insipid, or just plain daft ones.

Like sports utility vehicles, gorillas aren’t for everyone, and there’s no point pretending they are. But ideas don’t need to be big and brash to be good. Now, more than ever, clients need to be prepared to invest in original, progressive, single-minded thinking. 

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