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Media Agency Leadership Brand Strategy

After so much piecemeal advertising, big ideas are back (if we nurture them)

By Julian Burrett | Creative director



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September 25, 2023 | 9 min read

Has granular advertising made the world duller? For The Drum’s media convergence deep dive, Julian Burrett of agency Zone flies the flag for the big return of the big idea in advertising.

A person dwarfed by a sea of stars

After falling out of favor in the digital paradigm, are big ideas in advertising finally making a comeback? / Greg Rakozy via Unsplash

Through a thousand tiny cuts, the building blocks of historical media have been broken into millions of pieces.

But those pieces must be managed somehow. If we zoom out and see them as a single territory (instead of micro-managing every mini experience), the pieces are more similar than different. Which hints at a full circle. The pendulum has begun its return swing and we’re about to see a fresh bloom of imagination and excitement to command brands’ millions of interactions.

But have we still got the know-how? And who has the big ideas to transcend the granularity of today’s media mix?

How little clicks superseded the big idea

Being in the right place at the right time was always marketing’s core strategy. For most of its history, that meant renting room in everyone’s heads so your brand would be at the top of the pack when someone was ready to buy. Crystal-clear and well-wrought propositions conveyed through imaginative, emotional executions allowed brands to occupy well-defined emotional territories for that magical moment of purchase.

This was the ‘big idea’.

With each media innovation, from radio to smartwatches, the battleground expanded, and budgets tried to keep up. In the early days of the internet, it was still just posters on the screen, with Alex Tew’s Million Dollar Homepage representing peak experiential pandemonium.

But then, the entirety of human knowledge got squeezed into people’s hand-held devices. For brands, being in the right place at the right moment became operational rather than psychological.

Presence became the ‘big idea’, and everybody had it at the same time. Everything became a numbers game; clicks, hits, and likes were the new money. Measurement became all-important and promised the end (again) of the missing half of John Wanamaker’s advertising spend.

Suddenly, if it could not be counted it didn’t count. Data floated to the top of an increasingly unfathomable ocean of media possibilities. Data, data, data. At a time when we have more media options than ever before, the strategic playing field has narrowed almost to the point of singularity.

Getting back to the big idea

We’re left with a transactional approach. Results are collected in real-time and examined monthly or quarterly. Short-term successes are pored over in minute detail. As the needle nudged up across a range of metrics, changing gears has seemed more and more out of reach for established firms, leaving punchy start-ups and challengers to take on the heavy lifting of piquing the public’s interest.

The power of individual targeting has not led to a rich tapestry of creativity, color and vibrant commercial personalities; it’s been mixed beyond recognition into vague beiges and omnipresent vanillas. So, what’s next? The full circle, of course. The way to penetrate a messy mash of meh will always be simplicity, clarity, and personality. Big ideas. Again.

We must treat the big ideas of the past with great care. They didn’t just stand out at the time, they stand out through time. Their gravity warps our view of days-gone-by and makes everything look better. Through a murky mix of biases (like confirmation, illusory correlation, and survivorship), we see work of the past as typically better than today’s. A rose-tinted vision of a golden age. A rose-gold age.

Most students and practitioners can reach into their bag of advertising anecdotes for, say, Bill Bernbach’s Volkswagen work as an exemplar of great advertising. But, of course, it’s only so easy to find because it’s so damn good. All the ordinary work sits at the bottom of the bag like so many tissues and pilfered sauce sachets.

Not all past advertising was better, and not all recent work is lesser. Some fantastic, fresher, examples smash through and hover over the horizon to offer a shared vision for a moment.

Those with the determination and passion to trade on brand principles, rather than promotion, will continue to create value for customers. It wasn’t complex analysis and detailed channel planning that bumped Nike’s revenue by 10% in 2018. It was Colin Kaepernick challenging people to take a knee (or at least a stand).

That’s a weighty, emotional campaign. But that’s not the only way to slice through the media mess. Excitement, imagination, and anxiety are also incredibly useful. It’s over a decade since Red Bull Stratos and Felix Baumgartner space-dived into our collective imagination. While most brands were chasing people down an expanding maze of ever-narrowing media tunnels, Red Bull saw through the walls, creating an event that commanded attention instead of craving it. Back when Pinterest was fresh-faced and Google+ of positivity and hope, Red Bull’s leap of faith eclipsed them all. It cost around $30m; some commentators claimed an uplift of $500m in sales.

Instead of thousands of teams continually making content, Red Bull did one huge thing that inspired others to do the job for them.

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The pope and the client

The responsibility for big ideas doesn’t rest on the shoulders of the ideas people alone. It’s in the hands of the client. The role of the commissioner in art is often overlooked, reduced to passive money-people accommodating the artists’ whimsy. But the artist is just the talent. The intention, message and scale are lent by their bosses who really want to say something. Michelangelo was not asked to ‘paint the ceiling’. Pope Julius II had something important he wanted to share.

The conviction of the client holds the potential to shine through. Drawing a clear path out of the foggy media environment demands a single-minded view of success to overcome the many obstacles (internal, external and personal) along the way. Obstacles that make feeding the ravenous media beast one snack at a time seem more surmountable.

Big Ideas can’t be brought to life alone. They demand great strategic insight, brilliant account servicing, and sublime creativity supporting wonderful, imaginative clients to do something truly remarkable.

For more smart thinking on media's big moment, head over to The Drum's media convergence deep dive hub.
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Zone is the customer experience agency inside Cognizant. We generate value for businesses by creating transformative customer experiences.

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