An Idea Isn’t Everything

This is another in a series from AKQA creative Nathan Archambault. You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch.

Concept is king. It’s all about the idea. Your goal with every brief should be to come up with an idea so big that other big ideas become jealous. Right?

Not so fast. Coming up with a big idea is just one of the many steps that it takes to produce great work. And it isn’t always the most important step to a client. Sometimes it’s not even the most important step to an agency.



The details matter

Lately I’ve been seeing student books that feel like they’re full of high-level case studies. Videos that present the idea but don’t actually explain how it comes to life. After nailing a big idea, you’ve got to figure out the minor details. Not every big idea translates to a great ad. Without thinking through the small things, you’ll never know if your big idea is anything more than a great starting point. When it comes to executing a campaign, an idea isn’t everything.
The strategy matters
Clients don’t want ideas that come out of left field, even if it’s a great idea. Your campaign needs a foundation. You need to be able to explain the insight that led to your idea. Be perfectly clear about why this idea will be an effective one for the client and the target. When it comes to thinking strategically, an idea isn’t everything.
The client matters
Don’t forget that we work in a service industry. Our clients aren’t in the business of supporting the advertising industry. They’re in the business of making profits and selling products. They’re only interested in one type of idea – the kind that grows their business. When it comes to client needs, an idea isn’t everything.
The budget matters
A client isn’t going to toss more money at a project because an idea is so freaking awesome. Doesn’t matter how much they love it. If the best idea goes over budget, the next best idea moves into the starting line-up. Or, even worse, you’re asked to rework your great idea until it’s nothing but a sad shell of its former self. When it comes to sticking to budget, an idea isn’t everything.
The presentation matters
Part of the job is getting clients pumped up for your big idea to become a big reality. That may mean some theater. It may mean bravado. It takes a different approach for every client and every presentation. Just remember, clients weren’t there during your brainstorm sessions. They may not fully understand the thought that led to your idea. You’ve got to set it up for success, making it sound revolutionary. Make it seem like anything but your big idea would be disaster. When it comes to the presentation, an idea isn’t everything.
The objective matters
Every ad has a job to do. Your great idea should lead to action, interaction, or whatever the goal may be. An idea can be cool, but it also needs a nerdy side. A side that accomplishes the very straightforward and quantifiable goal put forth by the client in the first place. When it comes to building a brand, an idea isn’t everything.
There are a lot of factors that can make or break a campaign. Do all these things well, and your big idea becomes that much bigger. It also moves that much closer to becoming a reality.
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An Interview with Lionel Carreon


This is a great quote from an insightful interview with Lionel Carreon, senior creative recruiter at AKQA (full interview here):

What do you see over and over in portfolios that makes you cringe?
Thankfully, there isn’t much that is consistently cringe-worthy, apart from the occasional misguided idea. What I have noticed is that digital components have become as much a checklist item just like a TV spot or a print ad. They are often included in student campaigns for the sake of having them, often without any relevancy to the overall brand message and lacking any true innovation or stokes of genius. Two years ago it was an iPhone app, last year it was Twitter, this year Foursquare.

Very relevant to what I often see in my portfolio development class as well. Especially when it comes to that final quarter, students are often looking to check boxes. If it’s not a great concept, it doesn’t belong in your book, period.

Last night in class, someone set up a concept with “This is a Facebook idea.” Alarm bells went off right then. If you’re not setting up the idea with an insight about the brand and/or consumer, you should ask yourself if there is an idea. I heard the same theme consistently from speakers at Cannes this year: TECHNOLOGY IS NOT AN IDEA.

I completely understand the need and want to show that you are up on the latest technology, but without a relevant idea, it’s nothing. Ironically, agencies often do the exact same thing when they pitch new business–at the last second, they’ll say, “Shit! What’s our Twitter idea? We need a Twitter idea!” No, you don’t. You need a good idea, and maybe Twitter will be the best way to bring it to life.

Is your concept…

I was reading something the other day and wrote down these three words on a sticky note. I really wish I could remember what I was reading so I could give the person proper credit. I think it was about fiction writing. Maybe. I must be getting old. Anyway, whoever’s thoughts these were, they’re good.

When you’re judging your concepts, trying to decide if they’re good or not, ask yourself these three questions:

1) Is it Concrete?
Is it clearly communicating? Is it tangible? If you’re doing a radio spot, can you picture the scene? If it’s a headline, is it sharp? Does it conjure an image? Specifics are what make something concrete.

2) Is it Unexpected? This should be obvious. Don’t be derivative. And don’t be weird for the sake of weird, but your concept should be surprising in some way. Surprises tickle the brain (that’s a good thing).

3) Is it Emotional?
This doesn’t mean it has to be a weeper. But it should conjure some emotion–humor, amazement, nostalgia. Emotional and logical are not mutually exclusive. A surprising fact or logical twist also tickles the brain, and that’s a type of emotion.