Are The Days Of Mad Men And Big Ideas Dead Or Alive?

Most business people would agree that the digital, social, mobile age has caused massive impact to us in marketing.

If our goal is creating customers, then we know that customers have become harder to reach. If our goal is to define the insights that drive product innovation, then we know that online and offline communications are exploding every day. This makes it harder to see where the world is headed.

If our goal is leads or sales, we definitely know that consumers are tuning out our best efforts at reaching them, especially when we are trying to sell something.

When I talk to CMOs, I always ask them about their biggest challenges. The answers generally include things like respect at the board level, their relationship with their CEO, their relationship with sales and digital skills / training.

I have never heard a CMO, or any marketer say they were looking for the next “Big Idea.” But then I read this article in Digiday last month that posed the thought: maybe the big idea isn’t dead after all?

The article kicked off with this really interesting quote from the author:

If I were a CMO? I’d run my brand downtown to the Wall Street office of Droga5 and scream, Fry-like, “Shut up and take my money,” give Dave Droga a blank check, and then go to the lobby and sleep on their couch for two weeks or so, use Droga’s private shower, eat their food, go to New York Dolls with a couple of their chatty account doofs, watch them make it rain singles on strippers — all while their creatives worked 18 hour days on my Big Idea.

If you are not a male, stripper-loving, beer-drinking d-bag, then let me provide a little bit of context. Droga5 is the ad agency behind beer company Newcastle Brown’s “no bollocks” ad campaign.

The author thinks it is the best ad campaign to come by in a long time.

Yes, people still do ad campaigns. And yes, apparently a whole bunch of other people still write exclusively about ad campaigns. I had never seen any of these ads.

I must not be young enough / cool enough / hipster enough. I don’t find anything spectacularly funny or interesting or creative in these ads. But that’s fine. Just one person’s opinion. But I certainly don’t see the “Big Idea” embedded in this work that would warrant the advice that CMOs should write blank checks.

And while we’re at it, I wonder how female CMOs feel about his advice. Do agencies work for female executives or only the alcoholic, perverted males ones?

Seriously, I get “poetic license,” freedom of speech, hyperbole and all that. But come on, man! Someone has to call this crap out.

According to the author, the campaign worked by increasing sales!!! 

I’m not sure how he knows that. I’m not sure how he knows that it wasn’t the media spend alone and not the creative. I’m not sure how he isolated all the social interactions the creative generated from the media or the creative itself. But according to him, big ideas generate sales and social engagement is silly.

So, aside from the biased subjectivity and the pathetic attempt at making a compelling argument, I have never really been a big fan of “The Big Idea” mainly because it is impossible to quantify.

It sounds way too close to my favorite marketing term, the “viral video” and also because to get your own “Big Idea” you need to do exactly the kind of black box process described: hand over a blank check to an agency and watch them spend your money in endless brainstorming sessions where each one tries to all TMZ-like outsmart the previous comment with hipster jokes and not-quite mainstream current event references.

But what’s really interesting, is that I’ve never seen any of these ads. Not once. And I actually pay attention to ads. I read Digiday and AdAge and other marketing rags. I follow social commentators. I even watch the show Vikings, that the advertiser sponsored.

So let’s put a nail in the male chauvinism, the outdated ideas, the longing for the Mad Men days when CMOs could write blank checks.

And let’s all accept that consumers ignore the majority of ads, even the good ones.

We live in a world where marketing must be accountable for the results we can prove to the CEO and the sales team. We live in a new era where the best managers get reverse-mentored by their younger and more digital-savvy employees. We live in a digital world where all of us are storytellers and publishers and personal brands. We live in a social and mobile world that hates welcome ads and auto-play videos and interruptions of any kind.  And we live in a world of trial and error, test and repeat.  So that we can learn what works.

We can’t afford big ideas. We can’t write blank checks. And while advertising has its place, the smart money is on the shift to authentic storytelling from authors and employees and customers.

I put this marketing rant aside for a few weeks and when I came back to read it, I was still feeling the rage. So here you go . . .

But tell me what do you think? Should we still place our bets on the big idea, or that viral video? Are the days of the mad men and the big ideas alive and well or are they long gone?

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

14 thoughts on “Are The Days Of Mad Men And Big Ideas Dead Or Alive?

  1. Marketing’s mission has been and will be to create business value and positive business outcomes. Usually measured in market/mind share, marketing qualified leads, and yes sales qualified leads. If we can’t measure our mission we will fail. We always need to be the expert team for our businesses in creating and delivering strategic, unique, and timely authentic stories. The Big Idea is the hyper speed, digital media, and multiple social and web channels change the control from vendor to customer. The mission, measurements, and goals are the same. Create value and positive business outcomes.

  2. Sure do I want the big idea, but big ideas are not necessarily advertising ideas. And for the Newcastle ads. They are nice, especially because they reveal the deeper truth about Vikings, which in its narrative structure basically is a sit-com, beefed up with sex and violence.

    1. Oh yes, I should clarify that I want big ideas too. But who has the money or the courage to pay for them! Engage with your customers and they provide all the insights you need.

  3. Hi Michael, another good one.

    I’m in B2B land, but I’ve seen this exact mindset used in all the wrong places in content marketing too. I find the time spent blue-sky thinking is never spent on what customers care about, but on what the agency/client wants made.

    The big idea has the potential to emotionally supercharge your message in the right hands, but it shouldn’t BE the message.

    I know you’re not too keen on interruption in ads. I’m not against ads, or interruption, provided it helps users solve their information needs. If I was digging with my bare hands, I wouldn’t mind being interrupted with a shovel. Likewise when I plan a content demand gen campaign, I don’t mind the latest email benchmark report popping up.

    As long as it helps me. And the big idea doesn’t help me, it only helps the advertiser.

    1. Well said Ross. I’m not really against ads. Only how they represent so much mis-alignment and misunderstanding about the consumer journey. Now if you were looking for a shovel and someone tried to sell you a hammer, you would not only be interrupted, you might also be annoyed. That’s the part we talk so little about. Help your customers and you help the business. Spray and pray ads meant to interrupt are no longer harmless.

    1. Oh thanks so much for sharing that Michael. I didn’t start out thinking about the mad men reference but the article just felt so Don Draper-ish that I had to include it. Thanks for solidifying the connection!

  4. The big idea ad campaign is like a sugar rush – fun while it happens, but nothing that will sustain growth, unless your big ideas is a better way to deliver value to your customers. Better to spend time obsessing about customer value and, as you said, testing and learning what resonates with them. Court your customers, not the advertising pros.

  5. I can’t respond with a TMZ-inspired comment or hipster joke that’s not quite mainstream, but in my opinion, the Big Idea (at least in the advertising and marketing world) will, and always has been, about how the brand essence is communicated to the target audience. This can be through a tv campaign, a print ad, a content marketing strategy – any media. Digital or print, the ad world Big Idea will never ever be about technology, social media, or the latest CRM software or data measurement. It’s about the Big Idea – a strongly positioned brand that comes from sound research and strategy and informs a messaging platform that speaks to the target audience in an effective, relevant way.

    1. Thanks Julie, the way you explain, it makes me want one. Not for a blank check but I can buy into a strongly positioned brand that communicates via their core brand purpose. I’m not sure I would call that a big idea. What I envision is more deeply engrained in the culture, the founding story, and the main customer problem / value delivered.

      But I’m on board. And I know you are right. Much of this rant was against the lack of a real or even remotely logical argument presented in that article. Thanks for keeping us honest.

  6. Thanks for calling this out for what it is. I love a good rant about the effectiveness of marketing practices. You would think that these days there’s no room for this type of thinking, but I’m sure it’s still alive and well. Measurable, customer-focussed work is sometimes just too hard… and probably not sexy enough.

    1. Thanks Sarah! I’m afraid that kind of thinking is quite common. Most of the marketing I see comes at the request of an executive or out of these kind of black box brainstorms. Not the result of hypotheses and tests and optimizations. But I have hope that the world is shifting, slowly.

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