What exactly is an ‘idea’?

I hear the word ‘idea’ bandied about all over the place. Variously I have observed it used to mean ‘the overall concept behind some kind of effort to sell something’, ‘the post-rationalised justification for an idealess execution’ and even ‘some combination of words that we can all cling to like an umbrella in a storm, even though nothing really fits under the umbrella and all our shoes are getting wet’.

But what, in advertising terms, is an idea?

When I want to clarify this I always go back to classics: Happiness Is A Cigar Called Hamlet, Heineken Refreshes The Parts Other beers Cannot Reach, Good Things Come To Those Who Wait.

Great ideas, aren’t they?


They’re great endlines.

Here are the great ideas: ‘show how a Hamlet cigar can make you happy no matter how terrible your day has been’; ‘show how drinking Heineken can improve any negative situation’; ‘show instances where waiting for something culminates in a great situation/experience’.

You see, ladies and gentlemen, for me the definition of an advertising idea is this: if you say it to someone, anywhere in the world, they can then come up with the next ad in the campaign. It’s what you say to your creative partner so that they might help you to produce a piece of work. Try saying ‘No nonsense’ to your art director and see what he does. Then try saying, ‘We could show how down-to-earth people puncture poncey behaviour’. Voila: a campaign that lasted decades, through Arkwright, Jack Dee and Peter Kay.

Ideas may not lead to people coming up with a great ads but they at least give people a set of instructions they can work against and a measurement by which to ascertain whether or not their work adheres to the ‘idea’, furthering the campaign.

Ideas can be big, small, or indeed limited to a single execution. In addition there’s a ton of work to do after the idea has been found. But when someone says ‘The man your man can smell like’, that is not an idea. It’s an endline and perhaps it’s a campaign, but it ain’t an idea.