“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”

– Charles Dickens


 The Big Idea: The Biggest Misconception in Marketing 

 Is there a marketing concept more misunderstood than the “Big Idea”?

Ever since The Agora became the dominant direct response publisher in the world, the term has become synonymous with breakthrough marketing packages. That’s because The Agora has long been associated with “Big Idea” promotions.

But what, exactly, is a Big Idea? Ask one expert and he’ll say it’s a big promise. Ask another and she’ll say it’s a big and clever lead. Ask a third and he’ll say it’s the idea behind a package that crushes the control.

This confusion is rampant across the marketing world. Even within The Agora companies, many marketers and copywriters use “Big Idea” to mean different things.

It was David Ogilvy, I believe, who coined and popularized the term. What’s interesting is that for Ogilvy a Big Idea wasn’t actually an idea at all. It was something else entirely.

He used “Big Idea” to describe what he was doing in the field of general advertising: magazine campaigns. His ads usually consisted of a photo (or drawing) and a phrase. The image provoked an inspirational emotion. The associated phrase made the connection between that inspiration and the product. Memorable examples include The Marlboro Man and The Man in the Hathaway Shirt.

Ogilvy’s Big Idea ads were not about better mileage or faster service or saving money. They were about notions and hopes and dreams. For him, Big Ideas were about what I call  “deeper benefits” – psychological benefits, such as affirmation and self-esteem. (“If I smoke Marlboros, women might find me manlier. And if women find me manlier, they will like me more. And if they like me more, I will feel better about myself as a man.”) They did not convey literal benefits of any kind.

This is a very important distinction – and a critical one, because it reflects the essential difference between general and direct response advertising. The primary goal of general advertising is to create brand recognition. The primary goal of direct response is to elicit an immediate response (usually, a sale). The first relies heavily on images. The second almost entirely on language.

This is not to say that language did not (or does not) play a role in general advertising. Before Ogilvy, there were many successful general advertising campaigns that relied primarily on language. But these tended to focus on a USP, such as how smooth and quiet the car’s engine might be. An image was usually present, but it was there primarily to support the USP or simply showcase the product. It wasn’t expected to carry much weight.

Ogilvy’s Big Idea campaigns were, as I said, short on words and big on imagery. And when they worked, it was the imagery that did the heavy lifting.

His understanding of imagery was brilliant and enormously successful. The Big Idea became the standard for what a great brand advertising campaign could be. And it still is today.

But in the 1980s, on the other side of the advertising pond in the world of direct marketing, the Big Idea was being used to describe an entirely different approach. Bill Bonner was having great success writing direct mail packages to sell investment newsletters. And he was doing so by writing long letters explaining what was wrong with the economy and how those problems were going to radically change the investment landscape.

Nobody was writing promotions like that at the time. Everyone was writing packages about how much money one could make by investing in gold or in a particular group of stocks.

Bill’s sales copy was short on promises and offers but big on ideas. Ideas such as: Government debt will lead to a massive recession. Or: Inflammation is the cause of all modern illnesses. His interest in those ideas was the basis of a new kind of marketing strategy. And he used Ogilvy’s term for it because it accurately described what he was doing.

Bill began his sales letters with an indirect lead – writing not about the product but about an idea that might seem at first unrelated to the product. By doing this, Bill believed, the customer would be less resistant to the sales pitch itself and more open to thinking about problems that might get him into a frame of mind (and heart) where the product might suggest itself as a natural solution.

When I started working with Bill at Agora in the mid 1990s, we began the first training program in our industry in copywriting. I had brought with me a lot of ideas about how to best write direct sales letters – not just promise-oriented pitches but offer-driven campaigns and invitations, too.

Together, we taught the full range – from the most direct leads (offers) to the least (stories). We met every day for about a year with a dozen fledgling writers, many of whom went on to have very successful careers. And we continued to develop ideas about effective copy and how to teach it for many more years.

During all that time, the status of the Big Idea as a marketing “secret” never lost its appeal. People still talked about it, wrote essays on it, lectured on it, and so on. But the definition was becoming more and more diverse.

Nowadays, the “Big Idea” retains neither David Ogilvy’s original meaning nor Bill Bonner’s reinvention of it. For most people, it simply refers to a sales campaign that works really well – i.e., one that gets a very strong response.

This is unfortunate for two reasons: It renders the term meaninglessness, and it deprives young copywriters of an understanding of the concepts behind both Ogilvy’s and Bill’s thinking.

For Ogilvy, a Big Idea was an evocative image that could be connected with a psychological benefit. For Bill, it was an actual big (i.e., important) idea that had or could have significant consequences for the prospect.

But what a Big Idea is not(and this perhaps is the key thing I’m trying to convey here) is a strong promise or a clever offer or a captivating story – or any of the other things marketers do to stimulate sales. A Big Idea in direct marketing can only be an intellectually and emotionally compelling idea.

Offering a quick and easy solution to a problem… introducing a startling fact… making a convincing argument… these are all very solid ways to structure a sales pitch. And if you asked me to do the arithmetic, I’d guess that they account for more than 80% of the successful sales campaigns that are out there today. I can tell youfor certain that The Agora has sold more subscriptions with direct leads that featured promises than it has with indirect ones that presented Big Ideas.

That said, when they work, Big Idea packages can be game changers. A single campaign can literally double the size of your business.

So how do you write one? I’ll tell you in my next essay…

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rampant (adjective) 

When you describe something as rampant (RAM-punt), you mean that it is not only common, it is getting worse in an uncontrolled way. As I used it today: “[Confusion about what is meant by the ‘Big Idea’] is rampant across the marketing world. Even within The Agora companies, many marketers and copywriters use ‘Big Idea’ to mean different things.”

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