“Don Draper sits languidly back in his chair, smouldering cigarette pressed against a brim full tumbler of scotch in the right hand, in the left a microphone attached to an archaic Dictaphone. Words like disturbed stones falling down a mountain track drop into the recorder, they slow as his eyelids droop, borne into lugubrious stagnancy. Don’s eyes flare open as a supernova hits – he rockets upwards and flying onto tape lands the crescendo, the big idea and another stellar SCDP campaign is born.”

I don’t believe I will be giving up my day job any time soon to write prose, however I am, along with more than a few others at Red Ant, a fan of Mad Men. What I am more so is a fan of the ‘big idea’ when reaching out to audiences.

What’s the big idea?

The big idea is the core of a campaign; it is the raw message that ties each channel and medium together and the emotional connection between the audience and the brand. Unfortunately, in digital it is an area of traditional marketing that is all too often overlooked in the excitement engendered by the opportunities that ‘new’ channels can bring into the mix; without the big idea, the main promotion of technical innovation in a channel is the channel itself.

The importance of the big idea comes from its grounding in the consciousness and sub-consciousness of the audience; it doesn’t matter which vertical, sector, B2C or B2B audience the campaign is targeted to, each deals with an audience and the brand message needs to connect with each of those audiences. There are multiple triggers of the big idea, each tugging on strings in the minds of the audience – for example, for the connected consumer phrases such as “work, rest and play”, “just do it” and “I’m loving it” are more than just catchphrases -they attempt to reach the very bond between brand self-perception and audience brand perception. A big idea – the right big idea – sits at the heart of that connection and becomes the foundation of a successful campaign.

While the home of the big idea sits between the audience and the brand, it’s the message that leverages brand aims into audience outcomes. An in-depth rationalisation of the two is not the place of this post – for detailed techniques the Red Ant paper “Planning and Managing a Digital Strategy” comprehensively covers profiling, segmentation, message, multi-channel concepts, reach, frequency, consumption and evaluation. If you haven’t read it I heartily (with all due bias), recommend it.

Details aside, the spur of creativity behind the big idea for your next ‘Don Draper moment’ is aided by these three key points:

1. Understand the brand

An obvious point, perhaps, but understanding the brand is more than just understanding its aims – what is the brand ethos, how does the brand perceive itself across departments, rationalise the heart of the brand from product through to experience; and this isn’t just internally – see if the brand’s audience agrees.

2. Move beyond words

At Red Ant we talk about the engagement pathway in digital, others mention AIDA(L) – the big idea pulls the audience along this journey whether print advert, social media channel, mobile phone application or a combination of all three. To adequately engage the audience through these routes we need a message that encourages through feeling, not utility (unless that is the brand message, but unlikely even then).

In the opening paragraph words such as “languid” and “smouldering”, “lugubrious stagnancy” and “supernova” and “stellar” were not chosen through utility – they were chosen to set the scene, to create a mood and ultimately create a construct to lead you into this article. Of course, some may be left dashing for a dictionary, but I did say that prose wasn’t my forte.

3. Understand the audience

This is where digital and especially social media can come into its own; the brand and concept conversation is happening and as marketers and brands we can for the first time listen in, not just to small sample groups but thousands, tens of thousands and millions of potential customers as our brand scales.

I recently found myself reading an article by Dr Augustine Fou, ex-Chief Digital Officer MIT, and I read a phrase that didn’t connect immediately: “Digital makes it better” – perhaps I have become so ingrained in digital that the obviousness of the statement hit more than the subtlety. For digital to make it better there must be an ‘it’, so if you find me deep in thought when you’d expect feverish activity in technical channel planning, I’m not drifting off to Madison Avenue, but I might be paying homage to our marketing forebears by reaching for the big idea.

If you have any thoughts on the big idea then please leave comments below or find me on Twitter at @rconyard or @red_ant